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Katrina Aftermath: The Deadly Choices at Memorial - Part Two

Sheri Fink | , ProPublica | 5/3/2010, 12:39 p.m.

Originally Published in the New York Times Magazine

Part two in a five-part series

That morning, doctors and nurses decided that the more than 100 remaining Memorial and LifeCare patients should be brought downstairs and divided into three groups to help speed the evacuation. Those who were in fairly good health and could sit up or walk would be categorized ''1's'' and prioritized first for evacuation. Those who were sicker and would need more assistance were ''2's.'' A final group of patients were assigned ''3's'' and were slated to be evacuated last.

That group included those whom doctors judged to be very ill and also, as doctors agreed the day before, those with D.N.R. orders. Though there was no single doctor officially in charge of categorizing the patients, Pou was energetic and jumped into the center of the action, according to two nurses who worked with her. Throughout the morning, makeshift teams of medical staff and family members carried many of the remaining patients to the second-floor lobby where Pou, the sleeves of her scrubs rolled up, stood ready to receive them.

In the dim light, nurses opened each chart and read the diagnoses; Pou and the nurses assigned a category to each patient. A nurse wrote ''1,'' ''2'' or ''3'' on a sheet of paper with a Marks-A-Lot pen and taped it to the clothing over a patient's chest.
(Other patients had numbers written on their hospital gowns.) Many of the 1's were taken to the emergency-room ramp, where boats were arriving. The 2's were generally placed along the corridor leading to the hole in the machine-room wall that was a shortcut to the helipad. The 3's were moved to a corner of the second-floor lobby near an A.T.M. and a planter filled with greenery. Patients awaiting evacuation would continue to be cared for -- their diapers would be changed, they would be fanned and given sips of water if they could drink -- but most medical interventions like IVs or oxygen were limited.

Pou and her co-workers were performing triage, a word once used by the French in reference to the sorting of coffee beans and applied to the battlefield by Napoleon's chief surgeon, Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey. Today triage is used in accidents and disasters when the number of injured exceeds available resources. Surprisingly, perhaps, there is no consensus on how best to do this.

Typically, medical workers try to divvy up care to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people. There is an ongoing debate about how to do this and what the ''greatest good'' means. Is it the number of lives saved? Years of life saved? Best ''quality'' years of life saved? Or something else?
At least nine well-recognized triage systems exist. Most call for people with relatively minor injuries to wait while patients in the worst shape are evacuated or treated.

Several call for medical workers to sort the injured into another category: patients who are seen as having little chance of survival given the resources on hand. That category is most commonly created during a devastating event like a war-zone truck bombing in which there are far more severely injured victims than ambulances or medics.

Pou and her colleagues had little if any training in triage systems and were not guided by any particular triage protocol. Pou would later say she was trying to do the most good with a limited pool of resources. The decision that certain sicker patients should go last has its risks. Predicting how a patient will fare is inexact and subject to biases. In one study of triage, experienced rescuers were asked to categorize the same patients and came up with widely different answers. And patients' conditions change; more resources can become available to help those whose situations at first appear hopeless.

The importance of reassessing each person is easy to forget once a ranking is assigned. After several helicopters arrived and rescued some of the LifeCare patients, Air Force One flew over New Orleans while President Bush surveyed the devastation. Few helicopters arrived after that. Pou told me she heard that the Coast Guard was focusing on saving people stranded on rooftops around the city. Meanwhile dozens of patients sweltered on the lower two floors of Memorial and in the parking garage as they waited to leave.

Many of the doctors and nurses had shifted from caring for patients to carrying them and were loading people onto helicopters and watercraft. Vera LeBlanc, the LifeCare patient whose son arranged the airboat flotilla that had arrived hours earlier, was among the patients massed on the second floor. Her chart read ''Do Not Resuscitate,'' as it had during several hospital admissions for more than a decade, so that her heart would not be restarted if it were to stop.

Mark LeBlanc decided he was going to put his mother on one of the airboats he and his wife had directed to the hospital. When the LeBlancs tried to enter the patient area on the second floor, a staff member blocked them, and several doctors told them they couldn't leave with Vera. ''The hell we can't,'' Sandra said. The couple ignored the doctors, and Vera smiled and chatted as Mark and several others picked her up and carried her onto an airboat.

On a seventh-floor hallway at LifeCare, Angela McManus, a daughter of a patient, panicked when she overheard workers discussing the decision to defer evacuation for D.N.R. patients. She had expected her frail 70-year-old mother, Wilda, would soon be rescued, but her mother had a D.N.R. order. ''I've got to rescind that order,'' Angela begged the LifeCare staff. She says they told her that there were no doctors available to do it.

By Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Ewing Cook was physically and mentally exhausted, filthy and forlorn. A 61-year-old pulmonary specialist, he'd had his semi-automatic Beretta strapped to him since he heard on Monday that a nurse was raped while walking her dog near the hospital (a hospital official denies that this happened). Cook had had two heart attacks and could not help transport patients in the heat.

That afternoon, Cook stood on the emergency-room ramp and caught sight of a mattress floating up Napoleon Avenue. On it lay an emaciated black woman, with several young men propelling her through the fetid water. ''The hospital is closed,'' someone shouted. ''We're not accepting anybody.''
Rene Goux, the hospital's chief executive, told me he had decided, for reasons of safety, that people floating up to Memorial should generally be directed to dry ground about nine blocks south.

Medical workers finally insisted that the woman and her husband be allowed to enter, but the men who swam in the toxic soup to rescue her were told to leave. When a couple with small children rowed up and were told to ''go away,'' Bryant King, who was one of Memorial's few African-American physicians, lost his temper.

''You can't do this!'' King shouted at Goux. ''You gotta help people!'' But the family was turned away. King was out of touch with reality, Cook told me he thought at the time. Memorial wasn't so much a hospital anymore but a shelter that was running out of supplies and needed to be emptied. Cook also worried that intruders from the neighborhood might ransack the hospital for drugs and people's valuables.

Recently retired from clinical practice, Cook became a Memorial administrator a week before Katrina hit, but he had spent many years working on the eighth floor in the I.C.U. That afternoon, he climbed slowly upstairs to check what was happening there. Most of the patients had been evacuated on Tuesday, but a few with D.N.R. orders had not.

''What's going on here?'' he asked the four nurses in the unit. ''Whaddya have left?'' The nurses said they were down to one patient: Jannie Burgess, a 79-year-old woman with advanced uterine cancer and kidney failure. She was being treated for comfort only and had been sedated to the point of unconsciousness with morphine. She was so weighted down by fluid from her diseases that Cook sized her up at 350 pounds.

Cook later told me he believed several things: 1. Given how difficult it had been for him to climb the steps in the heat, there was no way he could make it back to the I.C.U. again. 2. Given how exhausted everyone was and how much this woman weighed, it would be ''impossible to drag her down six flights of stairs.'' 3. Even in the best of circumstances, the patient probably had a day or so to live. And frankly, the four nurses taking care of her were needed elsewhere.

To Cook, a drug that had been dripping into Burgess's IV for days provided an answer. Morphine, a powerful narcotic, is frequently used to control severe pain or discomfort. But the drug can also slow breathing, and suddenly introducing much higher doses can lead to death.

Doctors, nurses and clinical researchers who specialize in treating patients near the ends of their lives say that this ''double effect'' poses little danger when drugs are administered properly. Cook says it's not so simple. ''If you don't think that by giving a person a lot of morphine you're not prematurely sending them to their grave, then you're a very nave doctor,'' Cook told me when we spoke for the first time, in December 2007. ''We kill 'em.''

In fact, the distinction between murder and medical care often comes down to the intent of the person administering the drug. Cook walked this line often as a pulmonologist, he told me, and he prided himself as the go-to man for difficult end-of-life situations. When a very sick patient or the patient's family made the decision to disconnect a ventilator, for example, Cook would prescribe morphine to make sure the patient wasn't gasping for breath as the machine was withdrawn.

Often Cook found that achieving this level of comfort required enough morphine that the drug markedly suppressed the patient's breathing. The intent was to provide comfort, but the result was to hasten death, and Cook knew it. To Cook, the difference between something ethical and something illegal ''is so fine as to be imperceivable.''

Burgess's situation was ''a little different,'' as Cook described it. Being comatose and on painkillers, she wasn't uncomfortable. But the worst thing Cook could imagine would be for the drugs to wear off and for Burgess to wake up and find herself in her ravaged condition as she was being moved. ''Do you mind just increasing the morphine and giving her enough until she goes?'' Cook told me he asked Burgess's nurse.

Cook scribbled ''pronounced dead at'' in Burgess's chart, left the time blank and signed the note with a large squiggle. Then he walked back downstairs, believing that he had done the right thing for Burgess. ''To me, it was a no-brainer, and to this day I don't feel bad about what I did,'' he told me. ''I gave her medicine so I could get rid of her faster, get the nurses off the floor.'' He added, ''There's no question I hastened her demise.''

The question of what to do with the hospital's sickest patients was also being raised by others. By the afternoon, with few helicopters landing, these patients were languishing. Susan Mulderick, the ''incident commander'' who had worked with Cook for decades, shared her own concerns with him. According to Cook, Mulderick told him, ''We gotta do something about this.'' Mulderick, who declined to be formally interviewed about the days after Katrina, did tell me: ''We were well prepared. We managed that situation well.''

Cook sat on the emergency-room ramp smoking cigars with another doctor. Help was coming too slowly. There were too many people who needed to leave and weren't going to make it, Cook said, describing for me his thinking at the time. It was a desperate situation and he saw only two choices: quicken their deaths or abandon them. ''It was actually to the point where you were considering that you couldn't just leave them; the humane thing would be to put 'em out.''

Cook went to the staging area on the second floor where Anna Pou and two other doctors were directing care. Cots and stretchers seemed to cover every inch of floor space. Rodney Scott, an obese I.C.U. patient who was recovering from heart problems and several operations, lay motionless on a stretcher, covered in sweat and almost nothing else. A doctor had decided that he should be the last patient to leave the hospital because he weighed more than 300 pounds and might get stuck in the machine-room hole, backing up the evacuation line. Cook thought Scott was dead, and he touched him to make sure. But Scott turned over and looked at him.
''I'm O.K., Doc,'' Scott said. ''Go take care of somebody else.''

Despite how miserable the patients looked, Cook said, he felt there was no way, in this crowded room, to do what he had been thinking about. ''We didn't do it because we had too many witnesses,'' he told me. ''That's the honest-to-God truth.''

Richard Deichmann, Memorial's medical-department chairman, also remembers being stopped by Mulderick for a quick conversation that afternoon, an episode he wrote about in ''Code Blue,'' a memoir he published in 2006 about the days after Katrina. He was startled, he wrote, when Mulderick asked him his thoughts about whether it would be ''humane'' to euthanize the hospital's D.N.R. patients. ''Euthanasia's illegal,'' he said he told her.

''There's not any need to euthanize anyone. I don't think we should be doing anything like that.'' He had figured the D.N.R. patients should go last, but the plan, he told Mulderick, was still to evacuate them eventually. Through her lawyer, Mulderick denied that she discussed euthanasia of patients with Deichmann or anyone else at Memorial.

As darkness fell, rumor spread that evacuations would halt for the night because people were shooting at rescuers. In the adjacent parking garage, Goux distributed guns to security and maintenance staff, who cordoned off the hospital's entrances. That night, dozens of LifeCare and Memorial patients lay on soiled and sweaty cots in the second-floor lobby. Pou, several doctors and crews of nurses worked in the dim light of a few lamps powered by a portable generator. For the third night in a row, Pou was working with scarcely an hour's sleep, changing patients' diapers, giving out water, comforting and praying with nurses.

Kamel Boughrara, a LifeCare nursing director, walked past the A.T.M. area on the second floor where some of the sickest patients -- most of whom had been given 3's -- lay. Carrie Hall, a 78-year-old LifeCare patient with long, braided hair whose vast family called her Ma-Dear, managed to grab him and indicate that she needed her tracheostomy cleared. The nurse was surprised at how fiercely Hall was battling to stay alive. He suctioned her with a portable machine and told her to fight hard.

Comfort Care Or Mercy Killing?

Soon after sunrise on Thursday, Sept. 1 -- more than 72 hours into the crisis -- Memorial's chief financial officer, Curtis Dosch, delivered good news to hospital staff gathered on the emergency-room ramp. He had reached a Tenet representative in Dallas and was told that Tenet was dispatching a fleet of privately hired helicopters that day. Dosch later said that the dejected staff was skeptical.

But soon the hospital's voice chain began echoing with shouts for women and children to evacuate. Boats were arriving, including fishing vessels that had been parked on trailers in the neighborhood and were now commandeered by hospital workers. Helicopters at last converged on the hospital within a couple of hours of daylight, according to a Memorial nurse from the Air Force Reserve who oversaw helipad operations.

The Tenet spokesman and testimony by Mulderick in a 2008 deposition also confirm this. The hospital filled with the cacophony of military and private crafts hovering and landing. Down on the emergency-room ramp that morning, stone-faced State Police officers wielding shotguns barked that everyone had to be out of the hospital by 5 p.m. because of civil unrest in New Orleans; they would not stay later to protect the hospital.

Meanwhile, Cook strapped on his gun again and prepared to leave the hospital by boat to rescue his son, who had been trapped at his house since Tuesday's flooding. He told me that Mulderick asked him before he left to talk to Pou.

On the second floor, Cook says, he and Pou, both weary, discussed the Category 3 patients, including nine who had never been brought down from the seventh floor. According to Cook, Pou was worried that they wouldn't be able to get them out. Cook hadn't been on the seventh floor since Katrina struck, but he told me that he thought LifeCare patients were ''chronically deathbound'' at the best of times and would have been horribly affected by the heat.

Cook couldn't imagine how the exhausted Memorial staff would carry nine patients down five flights of stairs before the end of the day. Nobody from outside had arrived to help with that task. If there were other ways to evacuate these patients, he didn't see them.

Cook said he told Pou how to administer a combination of morphine and a benzodiazepine sedative. The effect, he told me, was that patients would ''go to sleep and die.'' He explained that it ''cuts down your respiration so you gradually stop breathing and go out.'' He said he believed that Pou understood that he was telling her how to achieve this. He said that he viewed it as a way to ease the patients out of a terrible situation.

In an interview with Newsweek in 2007, Pou acknowledged that after discussions with other doctors, she did inject some Category 3 patients. But she said her intention was only to ''help the patients that were having pain and sedate the patients who were anxious'' because ''we knew they were going to be there another day, that they would go through at least another day of hell.'' Beyond that, Pou has not talked about the details of what happened on that Thursday, citing the pending legal cases and sensitivity to patients and their families. What follows is based on the recollections of others, some of which were recounted in interviews with Louisiana Justice Department investigators, as well as in interviews with me.

Therese Mendez, a LifeCare nurse executive, had worked overnight on the first floor, she later told investigators. (She declined to speak with me.) After daybreak, she heard the sound of helicopters and watched the evacuation line begin to move. According to Mendez, she returned at around 8 or 9 a.m. to the seventh floor and walked along a corridor. The patients she saw looked bad. Several were unconscious, frothing at the mouth and breathing in an irregular way that often heralds death. Still, while two patients died on the LifeCare's seventh floor on Wednesday, the others had lived through the night, with only a few given small doses of morphine or the sedative lorazepam for comfort.

End of Part Two