Mercy-killing inquiry launched after 140 patients die in Katrina

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The Independent Online

Authorities in New Orleans are investigating claims that medical staff carried out "mercy killings" on terminally sick patients in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Investigators have indicated they wish to interview more than 70 employees at one hospital alone and have issued them with subpoenas.

Ever since Katrina devastated the city and the surrounding area at the end of August, there have been rumours and unconfirmed reports that a number of elderly patients stranded in some of the city's hospitals were "euthanised" by doctors or nurses in order to end their suffering.

But the Attorney General of Louisiana has now opened an investigation into allegations that range from abandonment of patients to euthanasia at a total of six hospitals and 13 nursing homes. At least 140 patients died at such facilities during the storm and in its aftermath.

A spokeswoman for the Attorney General, Kris Wartelle, said the 73 subpoenas issued to employees at the city's Memorial Medical Facility were for staff "who might know something about the case". More than 40 patients at the Memorial hospital, owned by the Texas-based Tenet Healthcare, died after floodwaters cut off power. Of those, at least 24 were in a long-term care centre which is run by a separate company.

The Memorial hospital has been at the centre of allegations since Bryant King, a contract doctor who worked there during the storm, told CNN that he had heard other medical staff discussing the option of euthanasia for those patients who had no chance of surviving. He said that he then saw the area cleared of everyone except for the patients, the hospital administrator and two doctors. After saying prayers, one of the doctors then produced a handful of syringes, said Dr King. "The only thing I heard the physician saying was, 'I'm going to give you something to make you feel better'," he said. At that point Dr King said he left the hospital.

Other doctors who were present have raised doubts about whether such mercy killings took place. Glenn Casey, the head of anaesthetics at Memorial hospital, told The Independent that he heard and saw nothing to make him suspect than patients were killed. "It was not discussed by any staff who were part of my team," he added. The parish coroner, Frank Minyard, has told reporters that investigators from the Attorney General's office believe that euthanasia may have been carried out. "They thought someone was going around injecting people with some sort of lethal medication," he said.

But Mr Minyard said that post- mortem examinations on the bodies of those patients who died had provided little insight because they had been so badly decomposed. "If they did not have a knife sticking in them or a bullet in the body, it's hard to pinpoint an exact cause," he said.

In a statement, Tenet Healthcare said: "We are co-operating with the Louisiana Attorney General's investigation of all patient deaths ... in New Orleans after the hurricane ... We are not commenting further because of the ongoing criminal investigation."