NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana’s top prosecutor said Friday he will not reopen a probe into allegations of euthanasia at a hospital crippled by Hurricane Katrina, despite new statements from a doctor that he drugged a terminal patient to “get rid of her faster.”
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Dr. Ewing Cook said that as staff at Memorial Medical Center desperately tried to care for and evacuate patients, making spot assessments of which ones might survive, he scribbled “pronounced dead at” on the patient’s chart, intending to fill in time and other details later.
“I gave her medicine so I could get rid of her faster, get the nurses off the floor,” Cook told ProPublica, an independent nonprofit investigative organization, in a report to be published Sunday in The New York Times Magazine.
“There’s no question I hastened her demise,” he said.
Cook, who was a senior physician at the hospital when the storm hit, said state investigators who previously looked into the Memorial deaths never interviewed him.
Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell said Friday he would not reopen a probe launched by his predecessor, Charles Foti, in which another doctor and two nurses were arrested on charges of second-degree homicide. A grand jury declined to indict them.
Any new charges, Caldwell said, would be up to New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who said Friday he had not seen Cook’s statements.
“If new evidence comes forward we would consider it,” Cannizzaro said. “But the crux of the matter is intent. To prove murder we must be able to prove intent.”
The hospital lost power and was surrounded by floodwater for days following the Aug. 29, 2005 storm. Temperatures inside soared above 100 degrees, and 34 patients died. Medical examiners concluded many of them would have died regardless of the hospital staff’s actions.
On Friday, Cook defended his decision to increase the morphine drip to Jannie Burgess, 79, who was dying of uterine cancer and kidney failure.
“It was hot, over 100 degrees, four nurses were trapped on the floor caring for her, and we could not get her down,” he told The Associated Press.
If the hurricane had not hit, Cook said the dosage still might have been increased.
“People who get the drugs we are talking about frequently build up a tolerance, so you have to increase the dose,” Cook said. “But when you do that every doctor knows what will happen.”
Cancer surgeon Anna Pou and the nurses have denied Foti’s allegations that they killed patients with overdoses of a a “lethal cocktail” of sedative-painkiller mix, and Cook scoffed at Foti’s term.
“It’s not something that was mixed up on the spot,” Cook said to the AP. “It’s always given with the intent of providing ease. The nagging side effect is that it shortens life, but you’re talking about people who are terminally ill already. They are not going to get better.”
Foti did not immediately return a message left by the AP on Friday afternoon at his law office.
Loyola University law professor Dane Ciolino said a doctor’s intent when administering the drug would be a key factor in determining whether the act was criminal.
“It becomes murder if specific intent was to kill,” Ciolino said. “If the drug was administered to ease pain and death is a side effect, it’s is not murder.”
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