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Insult to injury 

Generations of New Orleanians were born and/or treated at Memorial Medical Center, where Attorney General Charles Foti alleges that a doctor and two nurses murdered four patients by lethal injection in Hurricane Katrina's ghastly aftermath. Memorial for most of its 80 years was Southern Baptist Hospital. That so many Catholic mothers gave birth at "Baptist" is a small irony of local history -- and just one example of how the institution is a New Orleans touchstone.

Foti had Dr. Anna Pou and nurses Lori Budo and Cheri Landry arrested, but not imprisoned. The charges have gone to Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan to put before a grand jury. Discounting the possibility of euthanasia, Foti called the deaths "plain and simple homicide." That, after he had the doctor and two nurses arrested at their homes, in the full glare of TV lights, one evening two weeks ago -- even though their attorneys had offered to bring them in voluntarily.

If the women are indicted, the trial will be a riveting international story on situation ethics and a media disaster for New Orleans. Katrina left the city with a hobbled medical infrastructure, long emergency-room waits and overtaxed personnel. A trial would replay Memorial's crisis via witnesses who were on the brink.

Louisiana's criminal justice system also would go on trial. Foti, a glad-handing pol not without charm, has scant experience in assessing a moral crisis of this magnitude.

As backup generators died, the heat inside the hospital was horrid; fetid floodwaters encircled the place. At least 34 patients died. The arrest affidavit hints at the surreal environment: "Dr. Pou told T.M. [an executive nurse on the critical-care wing] that 'a decision had been made to administer lethal doses' to these patients. T.M. asked Dr. Pou, 'Lethal doses of what?' T.M. does not recall exactly what Dr. Pou said, but T.M. believes that Dr. Pou replied, 'Morphine and Ativan.'"

"A decision had been made" is legal parlance in quotes. Who "had made" the decision?

Dr. Pou's father and two of her uncles were doctors. Whatever she said, jurors in New Orleans will have to determine if there was any "criminal intent" behind the words -- and then only if a grand jury returns an indictment. With all the media attention being paid to this story, that could be a big "if."

"I became even more incredulous," Dr. Ben deBoisblanc, who worked in intensive care at Charity Hospital, told Time. DeBoisblanc, who was one of Gambit Weekly's New Orleanians of the Year for 2005 because of his courageous and selfless post-Katrina service to critically ill patients in Charity Hospital, says Foti "referred to a combination of drugs [Dr. Pou] used with her patients -- the sedative Versed and the painkiller morphine -- as a 'lethal cocktail guaranteed to kill.' This is absurd. If it were true, then thousands of people would be dying at the hands of doctors every day, because we use these drugs in combination all the time to give comfort, either during hospital procedures or at the end of life."

Arresting the women smacks of political grandstanding by Foti. It highlights a continuing numbness, ripples that refuse to ebb away. Each day brings short tales of hope mixed with deeper signs of decay -- another peculiar New Orleans cocktail.

Meanwhile, the French Quarter, Garden District and other relatively unscathed neighborhoods lumber along, the living city carrying the dead city like a stillborn child.

While the national media feed on this story in a frenzy, Garland Robinette's afternoon radio talk show bristles with doctors and nurses concerned about Foti's decision. In addition to deBoisblanc, countless other medical personnel stayed on the job after Katrina in war-front conditions and were abandoned by citizens, government and national "health-care" companies.

The country that put men on the moon took days to get helicopters down to rescue at-risk patients. How many medical workers will stay for future hurricanes with Foti on the warpath?

That question hovers like so many others for which no one has answers, as we search the skies, on baited breath, waiting to see what nature brings us this hurricane season.

Jason Berry, a jazz historian and journalist, is author of Last of the Red Hot Poppas, a tragicomedy about Louisiana politics to be published in September.


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