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Staff at New Orleans hospital debated euthanizing patients

Investigation continues into what occurred during Katrina ordeal

By Kathleen Johnston

A sign reads "help please" at the hospital in this September 12 photo.


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New Orleans (Louisiana)
Euthanasia (also includes Assisted Suicide)
Health Treatment
Tenet Healthcare Corporation

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- Three days after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, staff members at the city's Memorial Medical Center had repeated discussions about euthanizing patients they thought might not survive the ordeal, according to a doctor and nurse manager who were in the hospital at the time.

The Louisiana attorney general's office is investigating allegations that mercy killings occurred and has requested that autopsies be performed on all 45 bodies taken from the hospital after the storm.

Orleans Parish coroner Frank Minyard said investigators have told him they think euthanasia may have been committed.

"They thought someone was going around injecting people with some sort of lethal medication," Minyard said.

Dr. Bryant King, who was working at Memorial when conditions were at their worst, told CNN that while he did not witness any acts of euthanasia, "most people know something happened that shouldn't have happened."

Over the course of several weeks, CNN spoke with staff members from Memorial, who recounted the dismal situation inside the hospital after levees protecting New Orleans were breached on Monday, August 29, and most of the city filled up with water. By Wednesday, the situation had become desperate.

"We weren't really functioning as a hospital but as a shelter," King said. "We had no electricity. There was no water. It was hot. People are dying. We thought it was as bad as it could get. Why weren't we being evacuated? That was our biggest thing. We should be gone right now."

Food was running low, sanitation wasn't working, and temperatures inside soared to 110 degrees. Floodwaters had isolated the hospital, where about 312 patients -- many of them critically ill -- were being treated when Katrina hit.

Hospital officials said as many as 11 patients had died before the hurricane, their bodies placed in the morgue. Family members of patients and staff filled the hospital, taxing the dwindling resources.

No one knew when rescuers would arrive. Without power to operate medical devices, staff could only provide basic care. Evacuations were sporadic -- an occasional boat or helicopter picking up patients.

"It was battle conditions," said Fran Butler, a nurse manager. "It was as bad as being out in the field."

The staff was desperate, Butler said.

"My nurses wanted to know what was the plan? Did they say to put people out of their misery? Yes. ... They wanted to know how to get them out of their misery," she said.

Butler also told CNN that a doctor approached her at one point and discussed the subject of putting patients to sleep, and "made the comment to me on how she was totally against it and wouldn't do it."

Butler said she did not see anyone perform a mercy killing, and she said because of her personal beliefs, she would never have participated.

She also said hospital staff "put their heart and souls into patients, whether that patient lived or died."

But King said he is convinced the discussion of euthanasia was more than talk. He said another doctor came to him at 9 a.m. Thursday and recounted a conversation with a hospital administrator and a third doctor who suggested patients be put out of their misery.

King said that the second physician -- who opposed mercy killing -- told him that "this other [third] doctor said she'd be willing to do it."

About three hours later, King said, the second-floor triage area where he was working was cleared of everyone except patients, a second hospital administrator and two doctors, including the physician who had first raised the question of mercy killing.

King said the administrator asked those who remained if they wanted to join in prayer -- something he said had not occurred at the hospital since Katrina ripped through the city.

One of the physicians then produced a handful of syringes, King said.

"I don't know what's in the syringes. ... The only thing I heard the physician say was, 'I'm going to give you something to make you feel better,' " King said.

"I don't know what the physician was going to give them, but we hadn't been given medications like that, to make people feel better, or any sort of palliative care," he said. "We hadn't been doing that up to this point."

King said he decided he would have no part of what he believed was about to happen. He grabbed his bag to leave. He said one of the doctors hugged him.

King said he doesn't know what happened next. He boarded a boat and left the hospital.

Earlier this month, investigators from the attorney general's office visited King and asked him to recount his story.

The coroner said the attorney general's office has requested autopsies but, because of the condition of the bodies, it may be difficult to determine why so many patients died at Memorial.

Tenet Healthcare, the company that owns Memorial, told CNN that most of the 45 patients who died were critically ill.

Tenet said about 11 patients had died the weekend before the hurricane and were placed in the morgue.

Twenty-four of the dead had been patients of an acute care facility known as LifeCare that rented space inside Memorial.

But King said he finds it hard to understand how that many patients could have died at the hospital, even under such grim conditions.

"There was only one patient that died overnight," he said. "The previous day, there were only two. From Thursday to Friday, for there to be 10 times that many, just doesn't make sense to me."

During the past several weeks, CNN has reached the three people who King said were in the second floor area with him.

The hospital administrator told CNN, "I don't recall being in a room with patients or saying a prayer," later adding that King must be lying.

The doctor King identified as having first broached the subject of euthanasia with him declined to talk to the media.

The doctor King alleged held the syringes spoke by phone with CNN on several occasions, emphasizing how everyone inside the hospital felt abandoned.

"[We] did everything humanly possible to save these patients," the doctor told CNN. "The government totally abandoned us to die. In the houses, in the streets, in the hospitals. ... Maybe a lot of us made mistakes, but we made the best decisions we could at the time."

When told about King's allegations, this doctor declined to comment either way.

In a statement e-mailed to CNN, Steven Campanini, a spokesman for Tenet, said that "in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the physicians and staff at Memorial Medical Center performed heroically to save the lives of their patients under incredibly difficult circumstances.

"About 2,000 patients, families, physicians and staff were safely evacuated from the hospital by boat and helicopter during a continuous evacuation that began Wednesday morning, August 31, and was completed by Friday, September 2," Campanini said.

"We understand that the Louisiana attorney general is investigating all deaths that occurred at New Orleans hospitals and nursing homes after the hurricane, and we fully support and are cooperating with him."

LifeCare, the long-term acute care facility that rented space at Memorial, also prepared a statement for CNN.

"LifeCare employees at Memorial Medical Center during that week exhibited heroism under the most difficult of circumstances. LifeCare has been fully cooperative with Louisiana Attorney General's Office since the inception of their investigation and is unable to make any comment on matters related to the investigation."

CNN's Jonathan Freed, Sean Callebs and Colleen Kaman contributed to this report.

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