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Doctor, Nurses Charged in Post-Katrina Deaths

JOHN YDSTIE, Host:

In New Orleans, a doctor and two nurses have been arrested and charged with second-degree murder in connection with patient deaths at a city hospital. The deaths occurred in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina.

NPR's Carrie Kahn has been following this story and she joins us now from New Orleans. Carrie, what can you tell us about these charges?

CARRIE KAHN: The arrests happened last night. There was a doctor and two nurses. They were charged, as you said, with second-degree murder. They were released late last night. We will hear more about that today when the attorney general gives us a full account of their investigation.

But what we know is that there were allegations of mercy killings at Memorial Medical Center, located in New Orleans, in the days following Hurricane Katrina. There were 34 patients that had died during Katrina and immediately after it and there had been allegations since that time that doctors - we didn't know at the time how many doctors - but now one doctor and two nurses were alleged to have done these mercy killings.

YDSTIE: And remind us what the situation was like at Memorial Hospital in the days following Katrina.

KAHN: The accounts that we all saw on the television and we've heard since in eyewitness accounts was just horrendous in these hospitals; not just at Memorial Medical Center but several hospitals in the city.

The storm blew in early Monday morning - by Monday morning there was no power, their generators at Memorial Medical Center went out. There was no backup generators, they also were flooded. There was no air-conditioning. Temperatures inside the hospital were over 100 degrees. There was no way to circulate the air. There were nurses that were fanning patients for not just hours, for days. Also there were patients that were on respirators where nurses had to sit there manually respirating(ph) for them. Just a horrendous situation in that hospital.

The investigation is really centering on the seventh floor of Memorial Medical Center. That's where a long-term healthcare facility known as LifeCare operated there. And those were the most dire of the patients that were living up there. And that's where they - they're looking at the 24 deaths that occurred on the LifeCare seventh floor of Memorial Medical Center.

YDSTIE: Now you reported last February that there were eyewitness accounts of these alleged killings. Tell us more about that.

KAHN: Yeah, NPR reviewed documents in the case that had employees of LifeCare giving eyewitness testimonies of seeing a doctor and two white nurses discussing plans for, as they put it in this document that we reviewed, that they were not going to leave any living patients behind; that's a quote. And also that they were going to give patients, quote, lethal doses.

As the investigation has been continuing, the coroner has told us that they have sent tissue samples from all the deaths at the hospital to try and find out if they could determine if there was a lethal dose of drugs, such as morphine. And actually there was one chilling account in this document that we reviewed where they did talk about doctors carrying syringes and walking into patient's rooms.

YDSTIE: Now, one of the issues here was that many of these patients were critically ill and so there was some discussion apparently about whether or not these patients could be moved or whether they'd suffer a great deal if they were moved and die anyway.

KAHN: By the time Memorial Medical Center was evacuated it was Friday. Again, the hurricane swept in on a Monday. This was five days that doctors were there with - not knowing - flood waters are rising and they're not knowing whether they're going to be able to evacuate these patients. They had some horrendous decisions to make. And as this story has been reported in the media, we have not heard from any of the doctors. And today we will hear from at least one lawyer from one of the doctors.

YDSTIE: Thanks very much. NPR's Carrie Kahn in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
John Ydstie has covered the economy, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve at NPR for nearly three decades. Over the years, NPR has also employed Ydstie's reporting skills to cover major stories like the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He was a lead reporter in NPR's coverage of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, as well as the network's coverage of President Trump's economic policies. Ydstie has also been a guest host on the NPR news programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Ydstie stepped back from full-time reporting in late 2018, but plans to continue to contribute to NPR through part-time assignments and work on special projects.