Hospital Staff Seen Planning Mercy Killings Before Katrina Hit

Since September, the Louisiana Attorney General has been investigating allegations of mercy killings in hospitals in New Orleans. The investigation has amassed witness accounts suggesting patients at Memorial Hospital may have died from lethal doses of painkillers administered by medical staff in the days following Hurricane Katrina.

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Since September the Louisiana Attorney General has been investigating allegations of mercy killings of patients at New Orleans hospitals in the days following Hurricane Katrina. Yesterday NPR reported for the first time that the investigation has amassed eyewitness accounts suggesting that patients may have died after being given lethal doses of painkillers. The investigation by the state's Attorney General has centered on the actions of doctors and nurses at New Orleans Memorial Hospital.

NPR has reviewed secret court documents that reveal chilling details about events at Memorial Hospital in the chaotic days following the storm. NPR's Carrie Kahn has the story.

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

Conditions at New Orleans Memorial Hospital after Katrina struck the city were horrendous. The building was flooded and temperatures inside soared past 100 degrees. But it was on the seventh floor where the situation was most dire. Memorial Hospital leased that floor to LifeCare Hospitals, a separate long-term patient care facility.

A careful review of the court document shows that four eyewitnesses on the seventh floor believe that Memorial Hospital staff were preparing to euthanize patients. According to the documents, these witnesses said they heard hospital staff talk about the decision to end patients' lives and were told that lethal doses of painkillers would be administered.

The documents say that attorneys for LifeCare reported all of this to the Louisiana State Attorney General's Office on September 14, 2005. One key discussion reported by witnesses took place Thursday morning, September 1st, three full days after the hurricane hit during what is described as an instant command meeting.

A nurse told LifeCare's pharmacy director that the hospital's seventh floor LifeCare patients were critical and not expected to be evacuated with the rest of the hospital. Later that morning Dr. Anna Poe came up to the seventh floor. An actor reads from the documents. Witnesses' names have been removed.

Unidentified Man (Actor): Dr. Poe told the witness that a decision had been made to administer lethal doses to these patients. The witness asked Poe what the lethal doses would be. The witness does not recall exactly what Dr. Poe said but believes it was morphine and Ativan.

KHAN: In the eyewitness accounts reviewed by NPR, LifeCare's pharmacy director says later that day he found Dr. Anna Poe and two unnamed nurses in the seventh floor medical charting room, according to a statement read here by an actor.

Unidentified Man: Dr. Poe informed them that it had been decided that they were going to administer lethal doses to the LifeCare patients.

KAHN: From the documents reviewed by NPR it is not clear who gave that order. The witness asked Dr. Poe what medication was to be given. Again an actor reads from the documents.

Unidentified Man: She showed him a big pack of vials of morphine and some loose vials also. Dr. Poe requested supplies such as syringes.

KAHN: While on the seventh floor another witness told the investigators she saw Dr. Poe drawing up medication. An actor reads from the investigator's account.

Unidentified Man: The witness saw Dr. Poe walking down the hall accompanied by two white females who the witness assumed were nurses. Dr. Poe appeared to be nervous.

KAHN: The LifeCare staff were told to evacuate. Before they left the floor one witness said Dr. Poe had asked that they check on all the LifeCare patients and pull sheets over those who were deceased. LifeCare's pharmacy director told investigators that he saw Dr. Poe and two nurses enter the rooms where the remaining LifeCare patients were.

No one has been charged in the investigation. And nowhere in the documents or in independent interviews conducted by NPR does anyone confirm seeing doctors or nurses administering lethal doses of morphine.

Despite repeated phone calls and letters, Dr. Poe could not be reached for comment. Her lawyer, Rick Simmons, provided NPR with a written statement.

It says, Dr. Poe and other medical personnel at Memorial Hospital worked tirelessly for five days to save and evacuate patients, none of whom were abandoned.

When asked if Dr. Poe had euthanized any patients, Simmons told NPR that quote, "Dr. Poe did not engage of any criminal actions." Tenet Healthcare Corporation, which owns Memorial Hospital, declined to comment on tape for this report. Tenet spokesman Harry Anderson said that evacuation plans for the seventh floor of Memorial were the sole responsibility of LifeCare Hospital.

LifeCare Spokeswoman Paula Lavelle(ph) would not comment on the investigation but did stress that the company is cooperating fully with the Louisiana Attorney General.

Ms. PAULA LAVELLE (LifeCare Spokeswoman): But in deference to the ongoing efforts of the AG's office and out of respect for the families of patients, we're unable to make any comment on matters related to the investigation.

KAHN: The New Orleans Coroner says the bodies were not retrieved from the hospital for two weeks after the storm. Because of that, he said, autopsies could not definitely determine the cause of death.

The Attorney General, Charles Foti, says he cannot comment on the ongoing investigation. His office has subpoenaed more than 70 witnesses and is examining volumes of evidence.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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