Last October I wrote of the alleged killing of patients in Memorial Hospital down in New Orleans. Patients who were too sick to be transported and were stranded in the hospital because of the dire situation post hurricane Katrina, had been given lethal doses of morphine and versed. The cocktail combination was used to suppress respiration and sedate the patient to decrease their level of consciousness because of the anxiety caused from the deprivation of oxygen–“air hunger” it is called. Charles C. Foti, Attorney General for Louisiana called for a full investigation into the deaths of the patients left in the hospital, after rumors starting flying that the patients had been euthanised versus dying of natural causes.

Last week, the Attorney General’s office charged Dr. Anna Pou and two nurses, Cheri Landry and Lori Budo, with second-degree murder. A spokesperson for the Attorney General was clear that there was nothing merciful about the killing that occurred that day in Memorial Hospital. Three days after the hurricane hit, it is reported that Dr. Pou told a nurse executive that patients who were unable to be evacuated would be given a lethal dose. The disaster plan was to kill those who were too sick to be evacuated. The “they are going to die anyway” philosophy is so deeply rooted into the moral fabric of many, that this seemed the solution to the dilemma at hand. We see this attitude toward the weak and vulnerable in many of the bioethics issues. Physician assisted suicide–they are going to die anyway, isn’t it compassionate to help them end their life? Embryonic stem cells–they are going to die anyway, shouldn’t we use these embryos to find cures for others? Death row inmates–they are going to die anyway, shouldn’t we use them and harvest their organs? Oops–we Westerners haven’t slipped that far yet!

It is very eerie for me to revisit this piece. Mainly because last October, right after I first wrote about this story, I found myself stuck in the middle of Hurricane Wilma down in Cancun, Mexico. Wilma was actually a stronger hurricane than Katrina but didn’t have the after effects of the flooding associated with the broken levees. I spent 5 days with over 300 people in a government-approved shelter, with rising temperatures, limited food supply, no water or power and no signs of hope of rescue. Compound that experience with a 20 year career as a nurse, where the thought of intentionally killing a patient goes against every grain in my body, I am sharply aware of the realities facing Dr. Pou and these two nurses and the difficult challenges they faced as health care providers during a time of horrific disaster. But I hope that this indictment serves as a reminder to hospitals and health care professionals as they annually go through the JCAHO accreditation process. Disasters do happen. We must be prepared for them when they do. And killing our patients is never an appropriate response to their care. I much prefer the old fashion style of heroism, where the captain goes down with the ship. Those who we trust our very lives with have an obligation to first, do no harm. The ultimate in patient abandonment is to end their life in possibly their greatest hour of need.