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Chaos Reigned in Dark New Orleans Hospital

Family and colleagues of Dr. Anna Pou, accused of killing patients after Hurricane Katrina, praise her compassion and professionalism.

July 23, 2006|Richard Fausset and Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writers

NEW ORLEANS — The day before the hurricane struck, Dr. Anna Maria Pou stopped by her 83-year-old widowed mother's house on Fountainbleau Street and urged her to get out of town as soon as possible.

"She came here to tell me to get going," Jeanette Pou recalled. "She said she was going to be at the hospital, so don't worry. She said, 'I'll be in touch.'

"But we didn't get in touch with her.... She didn't call."

Not everyone agrees on the details of Pou's subsequent troubles as she and hundreds of others were trapped at Memorial Medical Center in the days after Hurricane Katrina. But one fact is clear: Pou -- along with two nurses, Lori L. Budo and Cheri A. Landry -- was arrested this week on suspicion of killing four patients in the Uptown hospital with a lethal combination of drugs. An affidavit filed by Louisiana investigators states that Pou, 50, told co-workers that the patients -- all staying in a seventh-floor long-term care facility -- "were probably not going to survive."

The doctor, through her attorney, has declined to tell her side of the story, but her friends, family and colleagues have rushed to her defense. She is an impeccable doctor, they say -- the kind who publishes research and wins awards, but also readily shares her cellphone number with patients.

She was a Catholic schoolgirl, New Orleans born, who joined the profession even though her physician father warned against the grueling hours. She went on to specialize in head and neck surgery, reconstructing faces eaten away by cancer.

Jeanette Pou says her daughter was motivated by an acute sense of compassion: Of 11 brothers and sisters, she took the greatest pleasure looking after the family pets. When she went to medical school, her mother said, Pou couldn't bring herself to kill a guinea pig as part of her laboratory training.

A year before the storm, she had returned to New Orleans from Texas, taking a pay cut to be closer to her aging mother.

These conflicting portraits of the doctor -- on one hand, exceedingly empathetic; on the other, callous to the point of criminality -- are difficult to reconcile for many in New Orleans, a city struggling in many other cases to reconstruct the events that followed Katrina, and determine its heroes and villains.

The facts that have emerged do not answer those kinds of questions about the doctor. What is clear is that at the time of the alleged killings, she was helping lead a hospital staff that was in the throes of confusion and despair.

They also reveal a bitter irony: Her alleged crimes occurred on a day when the evacuation effort had finally started to step up. By the end of that day, all of the hospital's sickest patients would be rescued.

*

Just before Hurricane Katrina bore down on the city, Pou called her boss, Dr. Daniel Nuss, chairman of the otolaryngology department at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. He had evacuated to Houston; she was at Memorial.

The storm was likely to make landfall while Pou was scheduled to work at Memorial as part of a rotation of ear, nose and throat specialists, so she was obliged to ride out the storm there.

Nuss said Pou's phone call was typical for her -- calm and professional.

"She was focused on ... making all the right preparations to dig in," he said. "Not prone to any kind of panic."

Memorial, which is owned by Tenet Healthcare Corp., had weathered many storms in its eight decades as one of New Orleans' most important hospitals. Founded in 1926 as Southern Baptist Hospital, it was centrally located, offered a wide range of health services, and had long served a diverse clientele -- rich and poor, black and white.

Its main building was sturdy, brick and eight stories high. Two days before Katrina, 19 patients were transferred there from a one-story medical facility in low-lying Chalmette.

They were placed on the seventh floor, where a company called LifeCare Holdings Inc. ran a "long-term acute care" facility. It operated independently of Memorial, and its patients were typically those with serious complications: people on ventilators, people who were paralyzed, people who in some cases were close to death. With the transfer, there were 55 patients just before the storm.

Also swelling the building's ranks were the staffers' family members, who took refuge in the hospital. All told, there were about 2,000 people hunkered down and awaiting the storm.

When the storm skirted New Orleans on Monday, Aug. 29, the staff at Memorial, like many residents across the city, thought they had survived the worst. Some patients and staffers went home.

"Nurses worked as if it was a regular Monday," recalled Dr. John Kokemor, 54, an internist who was on duty at the hospital after Katrina.

The cooks prepared a hot evening meal, and the people formed a chow line.

They were unaware that the levees surrounding the city had failed. New Orleans was beginning to drown.

By Tuesday morning, the water had begun to rise in the neighborhood, and worry set in.

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