A grand jury refused earlier this week to indict Dr. Anna Pou, a physician accused of killing four of her patients in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
This case comes as a solemn vindication for Dr. Pou and the nurses who heroically endured flooding, a power outage, and 100-degree heat for four days in order to tend to patients who could not be evacuated from Memorial Medical Center. But it also reiterates Katrina’s standing as a searing indictment of the state’s government.
At least 34 patients died of dehydration at Memorial during those long four days. And faulting Dr. Pou for the death of four of those patients clearly detracts from the larger failure of the government’s disaster response system.
The year-long investigation by Louisiana State Attorney General Charles Foti, which undeservedly soiled the reputation of Dr. Pou and led to her giving up her private practice, further perpetuated this streak of government failure. In fact, judging by the comments on the New Orleans Times-Picayune website, many Louisiana voters are dissatisfied with Foti and see the investigation as a stunt to help his re-election. And that’s exactly what Dr. Pou accused him of in a suit she filed against him on July 16. Dr. Pou still faces civil suits from several of the victims’ families, but at least she was not indicted as a criminal by the very state that neglected her and her patients to begin with.
Dr. Pou was not responsible for the failings of the system and made the best out of a horrible situation. She exercised considerable heroism and judgment as a physician taking care of patients who could not be evacuated. She and her nursing staff did everything in their limited power to comfort patients and follow their do not resuscitate orders.
Yet we must be mindful that medications that can be used to comfort patients can also kill. This does not mean that doctors such as Pou are murdering their patients by administering “lethal cocktails,” as claimed by Attorney General Foti. Indeed, the Orleans Parish Coroner found that the physical evidence did not support a homicide. Pou herself was right to note that there is risk whenever a physician administers pain medicine, but it was also her job to help her patients through their pain.