The tragic deaths at New Orleans’s Memorial Medical Center after Hurricane Katrina were among the most notorious examples of the vast human suffering that resulted from the flooding of the city—and the government’s incompetent response to the disaster. At least 34 people died in the hospital awaiting evacuation, and it wasn’t long before dark rumors began circulating that some of them were helped along by lethal doses of morphine or other medications. Almost a year after the storm, in July 2006, authorities arrested Dr. Anna Pou, a well-known head-and-neck surgeon. She was eventually accused of murdering nine patients who were in a long-term acute-care unit on the seventh floor run by LifeCare Hospital of New Orleans. (Two nurses were also arrested but their charges were dropped in exchange for grand jury testimony.)
In late July, a Louisiana grand jury refused to indict Pou, and the highly controversial criminal case came to a close. Pou still faces several civil lawsuits brought by relatives of some of those who died while at LifeCare. In her most extensive comments yet on the case, Pou tells NEWSWEEK that she did indeed administer morphine and a sedative to the nine patients and she knew that those medications might hasten their deaths. But, she says, killing them was not her intention. In the desperate calculation Pou and other medical professionals were forced to make, she says, some patients could be saved and others were almost certain to die. “Let me tell you—God strike me dead—what we were trying to do was help,” she says. “If in doing so it hastened their deaths, then that’s what happened.”
In Pou’s recollection of the events, she arrived at the hospital the weekend before Katrina hit. By Tuesday, the day after the storm, the hospital interior had been transformed into a fetid catacomb of Third World despair: the power was out, there was no running water, temperatures soared to 110 degrees and the smell was so rancid that it “would burn the back of your throat,” she says. “It was hell inside the hospital,” says John Marse, a chaplain who spent eight hours fanning patients with a piece of cardboard on Wednesday.
The situation turned even more desperate on Thursday morning, when a hospital administrator announced—wrongly, it turned out—no help would arrive. It was at that point, recounts Pou, that a group of staff convened to determine how best to assist the sickest patients—those who were the least able to be evacuated safely—and they agreed to provide sedation. When asked who specifically appointed her to administer the drugs to the nine patients in the LifeCare unit, Pou says: “It was a group decision. I didn’t really volunteer for anything.”
As it turned out, rescue helicopters arrived a few hours later, and Pou was among the last to go. Nearly a year later, she had just returned home from a 13-hour day of surgery and was sitting alone eating a lettuce- and-tomato salad, when she heard a knock at the door. It was four law-enforcement agents, who cuffed her and drove her to jail, on four counts of second-degree murder. “The whole way, I was asking God to help my family get through this,” says Pou, one of 11 siblings. The response from Pou’s supporters, including medical professionals worried about the criminalization of treatment decisions, was swift. The Web site SupportDrPou.com was launched, and in July, hundreds of people showed up at a rally in a New Orleans park. The sensational allegations reinvigorated the debate over whether mercy killings are ever justified.
At the heart of the case, like most things in New Orleans, was a deeply political story. The arrest was ordered by Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti Jr., a former sheriff who was grandstanding at a press conference about the arrest, claiming Pou “pretended [she] was God.” He is now up for re-election. Even after the grand jury declined to indict Pou—a decision supported by the local district attorney—Foti seemed unfazed, publicly discrediting the outcome and criticizing prosecutors for not introducing important witnesses. Arthur Caplan, chair of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania and one of five experts recruited by Foti, agrees the case should have proceeded to trial. “I say that because this isn’t an assisted suicide, like Jack Kevorkian,” he says. “These people didn’t request anything because they weren’t in the mental states to do it.”
Pou hopes the case will raise awareness of a need to more broadly protect doctors who are willing to offer medical care in disastrous situations. “You have to encourage doctors, not discourage them, to volunteer their services in a crisis,” says Rick Simmons, her attorney, who believes a nationwide good Samaritan law is needed. Pou, who resumed practicing medicine in February, says she is trying to move forward with her life. That won’t be easy. “I think everybody who lived through Katrina will carry the memories for the rest of their lives,” she says. “How can that ever be over for anybody?”