The doctor who escaped being indicted for alleged involuntary euthanasia in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is again in the news. Dr Anna Maria Pou, a well-known head-and-neck surgeon, was arrested last year and charged with administering lethal doses of morphine and the sedative Versed to nine patients. However, in July a grand jury decided not to indict her. In a long interview with Newsweek, she explained that she had only administered drugs to give pain relief:
"Let me tell you — God strike me dead — what we were trying to do was help the patients. Everything was done with their best interest in mind. First and foremost. Any medicines given were for comfort. If in doing so it hastened their deaths, then that’s what happened. But, this was not, ‘I’m going to go to the seventh floor and murder some people.’"
However, serious questions have emerged about the grand jury’s decision. The case against Dr Pou was originally brought by Louisiana’s Attorney General, Charles Foti, and five national experts in forensic medicine, palliative care and medical ethics were told to examine the facts. However, the case was inherited by District Attorney Eddie Jordan. Despite the damning conclusions reached by their study, he did not call them to testify before the grand jury. And because its deliberations are secret, it is not known whether their reports were even seen.
Prominent bioethicist Arthur Caplan, of the University of Pennsylvania, was scandalised. "In reviewing the facts and opinions, my conclusion is that the deaths of the nine persons at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans are all cases of active euthanasia," Caplan wrote. "Each person died with massive doses of narcotic drugs in their bodies."
These could hardly have been due to a tragic medical mistake, either. "Accidental overdoses would need to have occurred nine times between 12 noon and 3:30pm, all on one floor, to every patient who was left on the floor," observed Dr John Young, former president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. "Again, it is noted that morphine was not ordered for seven of the patients and Versed was not ordered for any. Therefore it seems highly unlikely that nine patients died on the same floor on the same afternoon of accidental overdose."
Organised medicine, however, accepted Dr Pou’s version of events unreservedly. The head of the American Medical Association, Dr Edward L. Langston, said that she and others had been "bright lights during New Orleans’s darkest hour."
Although Dr Pou will not face criminal charges, she still faces several civil liability lawsuits. She is also suing the state government to reclaim her civil defence costs.
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