Health Law

Hard-Hit By Katrina, La. Hospital Workers Revised Health Rules


When the power failed at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit four years ago, overworked physicians and staff isolated for days in the sweltering building without adequate supplies had to decide for themselves how to handle an emergency that was virtually unprecedented in the history of United States health care.

They made up some new rules on the spot—among them, that the sickest patients would be evacuated last—and, according to eyewitnesses and subsequent investigations, may have hastened the death of an undetermined number of patients with doses of pain medication, according to a lengthy New York Times preview of a Sunday magazine article.

The article describes the scene at the hospital, as those in need of treatment and evacuation swamped available resources and exhausted caregivers struggled to do the right thing under the circumstances. Without power, staff had to carry every patient down numerous flights of stairs to get to helicopters, when they finally arrived.

Even in ordinary times, it can be difficult to draw the line between providing medical care and pain treatment and dosing a patient with a drug that will hasten his or her death. In such emergency situations, says Dr. Ewing Cook, the difference between ethical and illegal conduct can be “so fine as to be imperceivable.”

After the hurricane waned and the situation became more normal, officials second-guessed the decision-making by the hospital’s medical staff. Criminal cases were pursued against a physician and two nurses, although they were later dropped. Today, after resolving her criminal case, Dr. Anna Pou travels the country lecturing and lobbying for new standards and better emergency plans. She declined to be interviewed for the magazine article.

Among the statutory changes she would like to see are laws immunizing caregivers in an emergency situation like this one from criminal and civil liability, the Times reports.

For a detailed discussion of what happened at the hospital and the legal and medical debates that resulted, read the full article.

Earlier coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Katrina Hospital Murder Case Closed, But Civil Cases Continue”

ABAJournal.com: “Panel Says La. Should Pay Katrina Doc’s $450K Defense Costs”

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