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Reports Raise Concerns About Patient Euthanasia After Hurricane Katrina

August 21, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Now, the investigation into whether hospital patients in New Orleans were euthanized in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden reports.

TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: Angela McManus is still searching for answers about why her 70-year-old mother was among thousands of casualties of Hurricane Katrina.

ANGELA MCMANUS, Daughter of Hurricane Katrina Victim: Cause of death was Hurricane Katrina-related death.

TOM BEARDEN: That’s what’s on her death certificate?

ANGELA MCMANUS: That’s what’s on her death certificate.

TOM BEARDEN: McManus and her mother, Wilda Faye, lived in this house in New Orleans. It now sits vacant except for the vagrants who frequently break in and do damage.

A year ago, her mother was hospitalized for complications from rectal cancer. McManus was given a bed next to her mother at the Memorial Medical Center and remained by her side. They rode out the storm together on the seventh floor, which the corporate owner, Tenet Healthcare, had leased to a separate long-term care company called LifeCare.

ANGELA MCMANUS: After the hurricane, they tried to implement an evacuation plan. First day, nobody’s coming. And the second day, a couple boats came in. The third day is when the helicopters started coming in.

TOM BEARDEN: But soon it became apparent that Wilda Faye McManus and many of the other LifeCare patients would not be evacuated.

ANGELA MCMANUS: The NOPD comes up and…

TOM BEARDEN: The police department?

ANGELA MCMANUS: Yes, and they had these little sawed-off shotguns, or rifles, or whatever. And they said, “You have to go. We’re evacuating the hospital. You have to go now.”

So I woke my mom up and I told her I had to leave her, and she screamed, and screamed, and screamed. I said, “Well, they said they’re going to get you out of here.” And I lied, because there’s no way I thought with a sane mind that they were going — weren’t going to actually take her out. I had heard some nurses saying that the DNR patients weren’t going to be rescued.

TOM BEARDEN: The “do not resuscitate” patients?

ANGELA MCMANUS: Correct. But with a sane mind, I didn’t believe them. They wouldn’t be able to leave live patients in a hospital.

TOM BEARDEN: Was your mother a DNR patient?

ANGELA MCMANUS: Yes, she was. It means “do not resuscitate.” It doesn’t mean “do not rescue.”

Investigating the murders

Charles Foti
Attorney General of Louisiana
With that information, what our jurisdiction of duty is to do is to start an investigation.

TOM BEARDEN: Police escorted McManus to a boat. Her mother was among 34 patients who died at Memorial in the days after the storm.

Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti believes at least four of those patients on the LifeCare floor were murdered, although Wilda Faye McManus is not among those named as victims.

CHARLES FOTI, Attorney General, Louisiana: LifeCare, a hospital within a hospital, came and self-reported about the deaths, and they called it euthanasia, OK? Then we had the victims' family and relatives call us complaining. And then we had other citizens call us who were witnesses of some of the things that went on, and they called. So with that information, what our jurisdiction of duty is to do is to start an investigation.

TOM BEARDEN: Last month, Foti ordered the arrests of three Memorial employees on suspicion of second-degree murder: nurses Lori Budo, and Cheri Landry, and Doctor Anna Maria Pou, a prominent surgeon and researcher in the treatment of head and neck cancers. All three maintain their innocence.

The arrest warrant accuses Dr. Pou and the nurses of injecting patients with morphine and a tranquilizer called VERSED without the consent of LifeCare staff. The document quotes a LifeCare nurse as saying, "Dr. Pou told TM that a decision had been made to administer lethal doses to these patients." Foti says autopsies confirmed the presence of high doses of the drugs.

CHARLES FOTI: When you use both of them together, it becomes a lethal cocktail that guarantees they're going to die.

A lethal combination?

Dr. Ben deBoisblanc
LSU Health Science Center
In the early days after Katrina, hundreds, thousands of health care providers were trying as hard as they could to protect the interests of all of those patients and, when they couldn't do that, to make sure that they were comfortable.

TOM BEARDEN: Dr. Ben deBoisblanc says that's not true.

DR. BEN DEBOISBLANC, LSU Health Science Center: I object to the suggestion that VERSED and morphine are a lethal concoction. If that were the case, then we'd have thousands of patients dying every day in the intensive care unit.

TOM BEARDEN: DeBoisblanc was director of critical care services at another hospital, Charity, that was also inundated by the storm. He is one of many members of the medical community that have expressed outrage over the charges.

DR. BEN DEBOISBLANC: I think this Monday morning quarterbacking is not very useful. But what did play out was that, in the early days after Katrina, hundreds, thousands of health care providers were trying as hard as they could to protect the interests of all of those patients and, when they couldn't do that, to make sure that they were comfortable.

TOM BEARDEN: Dr. Pou's medical partner, Andrew McWhorter, says she always put the patients' needs first.

DR. ANDREW MCWHORTER, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center: On the evening of her arrest, her only phone call was to me to make sure that her patients were taken care of, and that was her primary concern. Unanimously, they have all endorsed her, and miss her, and want her to continue to be their physician.

TOM BEARDEN: Dr. Pou's attorney, Rick Simmons, says his client committed neither euthanasia nor murder, and that the larger picture has to be taken into consideration.

RICK SIMMONS, Attorney: We believe it's been a tunnel-vision investigation. They started with certain conclusions, based on maybe some allegations from certain people, and didn't look at the broader picture of what occurred here.

And the broader picture is that, if you wanted to investigate, let's find out what happened in terms of the state, federal and local government abandoning these people. Not only the patients, but the doctors and the hospitals were abandoned, and that has an effect on what occurred.

TOM BEARDEN: Dr. Ben deBoisblanc says the conditions faced by Dr. Pou and her associates at Memorial were probably very similar to what he experienced at Charity.

DR. BEN DEBOISBLANC: Inside the building it was pitch black, and condensation started to roll off the walls. The aromas became unbearable as the toilets backed up. People unable to find a place to use a bathroom were urinating in coffee cups and defecating in garbage cans, whatever they could find. The health care workers worked around the clock, standing at bedsides, squeezing bags hour after hour.

A moral issue

TOM BEARDEN: Attorney General Foti agrees that the majority of health care workers did act heroically in the aftermath of Katrina but says that does not excuse what he believes was murder.

CHARLES FOTI: It is a case that no one likes to bring, and it was not done lightly. My brother's a doctor. I have numerous members of my family that are nurses, doctors, in the medical profession, and I have a great respect for the medical profession.

But where you have a case that screams out, where you have four people and possibly more that are dead, that their voices have to be heard of why?

TOM BEARDEN: And Foti says the arrests came only after outside state and federal experts had reviewed the evidence.

Mark and Sandra LeBlanc think the responsibility lies not with the physicians and nurses who treated patients throughout the storm but rather with the corporations who owned the facilities. The LeBlancs tried to evacuate their mother, Elvira LeBlanc, from the LifeCare floor the Sunday before the storm. She'd been recovering from colon surgery and suffered from Parkinson's disease.

SANDRA LEBLANC: We were told, "We have staff. We have supplies. We have a generator. We have plans. You know, she will be fine here."

TOM BEARDEN: Believing their mother would be safe, the LeBlancs evacuated. But after the levees broke, they received a disturbing phone call from the certified nursing assistant they had hired.

SANDRA LEBLANC: She said that most of the staff there were starting to get very frightful. Some patients had died. They couldn't take them to the morgue; there was no morgue. They had to leave them in the room.

TOM BEARDEN: The LeBlancs persuaded three airboat drivers to take them to the flooded hospital.

MARK LEBLANC: They were just volunteers. And we knew we were getting there one way or the other. And these people were just kind enough to go with us. And then we just did like a commando raid and drove up to the hospital. And I grabbed somebody's flashlight and ran up to the seventh floor to find my mother and found out how she was doing.

TOM BEARDEN: What did you find when you got there?

MARK LEBLANC: She was in a mess. I mean, her skin was all clammy. She had been dehydrated. She was hot. She could talk, but it was weak, you know, because she was tired.

TOM BEARDEN: They put their mother on an airboat and then an ambulance bound for Baton Rouge.

MARK LEBLANC: We got my mother out, brought her to Causeway and I-10, and went back, even though my mother was out, to get the rest of the people because, if we didn't go, nobody was. And here we have a multi-billion-dollar corporation that basically doesn't give a damn, you know, left it up to two private citizens to rescue their employees and their patients.

TOM BEARDEN: A week later, Elvira LeBlanc died in a Baton Rouge nursing home. The LeBlancs are suing Tenet Healthcare and LifeCare hospitals. Tenet declined the NewsHour's request for an interview, but issued this statement: "We strongly believe the judicial process must run its course before any judgments can be made about what did or did not happen in the harrowing days after Hurricane Katrina."

LifeCare Hospitals also issued a written statement to the NewsHour that said: "We are confident that, as the facts of these cases are reviewed through the proper legal channels, our employees' tremendous dedication and responsibility to patient care will be shown."

Attorney General Foti says his office is continuing to investigate whether any other arrests should be made.

CHARLES FOTI: The attorney general, the state, everybody has a duty to protect the citizens of our state or any other state. If you go in a hospital, you should expect to receive good medical care.

TOM BEARDEN: Most New Orleans hospitals are still either closed or provide only limited services. Charity Hospital, for example, is seeing emergency patients in cubicles at an abandoned department store. Several health care providers told the NewsHour that the arrests have had a chilling effect and wonder how many professionals will report to work in a future disaster situation.