NEW ORLEANS (BP)–An investigation continues into allegations of euthanasia in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina, when New Orleans hospitals were surrounded by water and conditions were dire with little hope of evacuating patients. National Public Radio has reported that it gained access to court documents that reveal eyewitness accounts of what happened during those days.
The documents, not yet released to the public, shed light on an investigation by the Louisiana attorney general’s office of doctors and nurses at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, where rumors indicate patients were given lethal doses of medicine because no end to their suffering was in sight.
Though more than 70 witnesses have been subpoenaed by investigators and massive amounts of evidence are being assessed, no one has yet been charged and no one has confirmed seeing doctors or nurses actually administer lethal drugs, NPR said.
New Orleans Coroner Frank Minyard told NPR it would be difficult to prove lethal doses of morphine were given to patients who could not be evacuated because the bodies were not retrieved until two weeks after the hurricane and were badly decomposed. Also, they could have been given safe amounts of the drug before the storm that would interfere with the investigation.
So, NPR said, investigators are relying largely on accounts from eyewitnesses.
In a report aired on the show “All Things Considered” Feb. 16, NPR recounts the plight of Angela McManus, whose 78-year-old mother, Wilda Faye, died in the hospital’s seventh floor long-term care facility.
McManus was by her mother’s side at the hospital as the city was overtaken by floodwaters. The building lost power, and backup generators also failed as temperatures rose above 100 degrees inside, NPR said. Gunshots and looters were closing in, and 2,000 people were trapped in the hospital.
Hospital employees asked McManus to make her way to the first floor, where evacuation boats would be loaded while helicopters came to remove her bed-ridden mother from the seventh floor.
“The sewer lines had all backed up, and we were down there in all that stifling heat and this odor was horrendous,” she told NPR.
After waiting overnight with no rescue, nurses told McManus her mother had not been evacuated but had been sedated. She returned to her mother’s bed to find her sleeping and slightly able to communicate. While waiting and fearing for her mother’s health, McManus said she overheard nurses saying a decision had been made not to evacuate certain patients.
That evening, three New Orleans police officers approached her with guns drawn and said she had to leave, NPR reported, because all non-essential staff were being evacuated.
“I woke her up and told her that I had to leave, and I told her that it was OK, to go on and be with Jesus, and she understood me because she cried,” McManus told NPR. “First she screamed, then she cried. And I said, ‘Momma, do you understand?’ and she said, ‘Yes.’ And she asked me, she asked me to sing to her one more time. And I did it, and everyone was crying, and then I left. I had to leave her there. The police escorted me seven floors down.”
Court documents show a discussion occurred between hospital administrators Sept. 1 regarding what to do with the seventh-floor patients who were in critical condition. A pharmacy director, director of physical medicine and an assistant administrator told an investigator in the state attorney general’s office that the evacuation plan for the seventh floor was to “not leave any living patients behind,” and that “a lethal dose would be administered,” NPR discovered.
McManus, who has hired an attorney to investigate her mother’s death, told NPR, “You know, of course I don’t know what God’s will is. I don’t know when He was calling her home. If He did in fact do it, OK. But if man decided that, I want to know that. My family needs peace of mind about that.”
When reports of euthanasia in New Orleans first surfaced last fall, Southern Baptist bioethicist C. Ben Mitchell told Baptist Press the solution to the challenge of evacuating seriously ill patients was not to kill them.
“EMTs and trauma doctors make triage decisions every day. The question comes down to: Who should we save when we cannot save them all?” Mitchell, associate professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago and a consultant with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religion Liberty Commission, said. “These doctors had heart-wrenching obligations to both the patients they could not move to another location and the patients they were evacuating. One thing we should be clear about: We must not countenance the intentional killing of a hospital patient.”