Sunday, July 29, 2007

There was no indictment

Anna M. Pou, MD was a respected professor with 16 years experience in medical practice when she was arrested last year for the murder of four hospital patients in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Last week (July 24) the Orleans Parish grand jury declined to indict Dr. Pou, and according to the New York Times, the District Attorney of New Orleans “agreed with the grand jury.”

The Attorney General of Louisiana ordered Dr. Pou’s arrest last year (July 18, 2006), along with the arrest of two nurses on second-degree murder charges. The charges against the nurses were subsequently dropped in exchange for their testimony for the prosecution.

The deceased patients were from Lifecare Hospital, which operated an intensive care unit with a separate staff in leased space at Memorial Medical Center, where Dr. Pou practiced. Could ordinary workplace differences have contributed to confusion or misunderstanding or even rivalry that may have affected witnesses' perceptions of Dr. Pou's intentions or actions?

Dr. Pou has not discussed the events in detail because her legal ordeal is not finished. There are several civil suits pending against her.

The American Medical Association said it is “proud of Dr. Pou” and expressed concern that patient care decisions can become criminalized, especially when such decisions may be “made during the chaotic aftermath of a disaster, where medical personnel and supplies are severely compromised.”

I have written before about the difficult heroism of hospital workers in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. The news media was full of photographs, showing dramatic helicopter rescues of stranded individuals, but there were no cameras to record what doctors and nurses and other hospital workers did, under duress, as they continued caring for patients.

The heroism of New Orlean's health care workers in extremis has not been fully appreciated, and the prosecution of Dr. Pou has no doubt tainted the public perception of caregivers. The decision by the grand jury not to indict Dr. Pou is one step to clearing up this matter.

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