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No Indictment in Katrina Hospital Deaths

By MARY FOSTER
The Associated Press
Tuesday, July 24, 2007; 9:33 PM

NEW ORLEANS -- A grand jury refused on Tuesday to indict a doctor accused of murdering four seriously ill hospital patients with drug injections during the desperate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, closing the books on the only mercy-killing case to emerge from the storm.

Dr. Anna Pou acknowledged administering medication to the patients but insisted she did so only to relieve pain.

Pou (pronounced "Poe") and two nurses were arrested last summer after Attorney General Charles Foti concluded they gave "lethal cocktails" to four patients at the flooded-out, sweltering Memorial Medical Center after the August 2005 storm.

The decision was a defeat for Foti, who accused the doctor and the nurses, but it was the New Orleans district attorney who presented the case to the grand jury, asking it to bring murder and conspiracy charges.

At a news conference, Pou fought back tears as she read a prepared statement. She refused to answer questions about what happened at the hospital because of lawsuits filed by families of three patients.

"Today's events are not a triumph but a moment of remembrance for those who lost their lives during the storm, and a tribute to all those who stayed at their posts and served people most in need," Pou said.

If another hurricane threatened, Pou added, she would stay on hospital duty "in a heartbeat." But she is concerned her case will keep other medical professionals from remaining with patients during storms.

"All of us need to remember the magnitude of human suffering that occurred in the city of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina so we can be assured that this never happens again and that no health care professional should ever be falsely accused in a rush to judgment," she said.

Regarding her feelings toward the attorney general, Pou said she "puts his fate in God's hands."

"I figure he has to live with the decisions he's made, and I've been praying really hard every day that I can forgive him for all the pain and suffering he's caused so many people that are involved in this case," Pou said.

Foti said Tuesday that the grand jury had erred. He released reports from four medical experts who determined the deaths were homicides.

District Attorney Eddie Jordan had not called any family members of the people who died to testify before the grand jury, and Pou had received sympathetic press coverage, Foti said.

"It was well planned and well orchestrated," Foti said of the news media's coverage of the case.

All available information was given to the grand jury, Jordan said.

"I feel the grand jury did the right thing," he said.

Charges against the nurses, Lori Budo and Cheri Landry, were dropped after they were compelled to testify last month before the grand jury under legal guidelines that kept their testimony from being used against them.

Many people in New Orleans believed the three acted heroically under punishing conditions. Last week, a group of doctors and nurses held a rally on the anniversary of Pou's arrest, and hundreds of people turned out to show support.

"You look at a lady who's trying to help the community, and they try to indict her," said Clarence Singleton, who was selling seafood lunches Tuesday near the Louisiana Superdome.

Pou said she does not feel like a victim "because the people that know me know the type of person I am and the type of physician I am."

"I believe any patient I meet in the future and take care of will know in their heart that I always have their best interests in mind in everything I do and that I am committed to helping them."

Budo's attorney, Eddie Castaing, called the grand jury's decision proof that none of the three should ever have been arrested.

When the levees broke in New Orleans, 80 percent of the city flooded. The lower level of Memorial Medical Center was under 10 feet of water, and electricity was out across the city. Inside the hospital, the temperature topped 100 degrees.

At least 34 people died at the hospital, many from dehydration during the four-day wait for rescuers. In an interview last fall with CBS' "60 Minutes," Pou stressed: "Anytime you provide pain medicine to anybody, there is a risk. But as I said, my role is to help them through the pain."

Other doctors who were there described the situation as resembling a MASH unit during wartime rather than an urban American hospital.

"It was stifling. We were hoisting patients floor to floor on the backs of strong young men. It was as bad as you can imagine," Dr. Gregory Vorhoff, who stayed throughout the storm and eventually hitched a ride on a boat to seek help, told The Associated Press after Pou was arrested.

The four patients Pou was accused of killing ranged in age from 61 to 90. Foti said all four would have survived if they had not been given morphine and midazolam hydrochloride.

Autopsies were performed, but the results were not released because of the grand jury investigation.

Pou, whose specialty is eye, ear, nose and throat surgery, gave up her private practice after she was arrested and has been teaching at LSU medical school in Baton Rouge.

On Tuesday, she said she hoped to resume her practice as quickly as possible and urged officials to require that hospitals be evacuated for storms stronger than Category 2.

"It is my hope to return to work doing what I love to do best," she said.

Many hospitals in the region remain closed or are operating with reduced services nearly two years after Katrina. They also report difficulty in attracting and keeping medical staff.

© 2007 The Associated Press