Was It Murder?

Doctor, Two Nurses Were Accused Of Murdering Patients

This segment was originally broadcast on Sep. 24, 2006. It was updated on Aug. 15, 2007.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina two years ago, more than a thousand bodies were recovered in the city of New Orleans. Among the dead were 34 patients from Memorial Medical Center, a hospital that was stranded, isolated, in ten feet of water and without power for four sweltering days.

A year ago, Louisiana's attorney general stunned the city when he claimed that four of Memorial's dead did not die from illnesses or even from the horrific conditions but that they were murdered. Even more stunning, a highly respected doctor and two nurses were arrested.

A few weeks ago all three were cleared by a New Orleans grand jury. But still the case continues to resonate and raise questions about ethics, and compassion in what has been described as battlefield conditions. As correspondent Morley Safer reported last September, at the center of it was Dr. Anna Pou.

"It is unbelievably shocking for me that I'm actually sitting here having this conversation with you on national TV. And I want everybody to know that I am not a murderer, that we are not murderers," says Dr. Pou.

Dr. Pou, along with nurses Cheri Landry and Lori Budo, were arrested after an investigation by the state attorney general, who accused them of murder by injecting four patients in their care with two different drugs.

"When you use both of them together, it becomes a lethal cocktail and guarantees they're going to die," the attorney general, Charles Foti, announced.

The story made headlines around the world. It's New Orleans after all and theories abound: were patients murdered? Was it mercy killing? Did the doctor and nurses kill patients who were dying anyway and were too ill to be evacuated? Or were they simply given medication to make them comfortable in the most horrific of conditions.

The attorney general had no doubt. "This is not euthanasia. This is plain and simple homicide," Foti said.

"You went from being a highly respected physician to, in the eyes of the law, a criminal. What did that do to you?" Safer asks Dr. Pou.

"It completely ripped my heart out. Because my entire life, I have tried to do good. And my entire adult life, I have given everything that I have within me to take care of my patients," she replies.

Dr. Pou has been practicing medicine for more than 15 years — as a head and neck surgeon who specializes in treating cancer patients. As Katrina approached, Dr. Pou headed to Memorial Medical Center, where she was on call. In all, about 2,000 people were in the hospital that Sunday night, many of them simply seeking refuge. After the storm passed the next morning, there was a sense of relief.

Dr. Pou was offered the chance to leave but she chose to stay with her patients. By early Tuesday morning, the city's levees were collapsing.

"It was really shocking. The water was squirting out of the vents in the street, the gutters. And water started coming. And probably rose about a foot an hour," she recalls.

By late Tuesday, the hospital was flooded with ten feet of water and completely without power. Ventilators stopped, there were no telephones, limited food, and perhaps worst of all the 110 degree heat.

"I don't know if there's any way for me to describe to you how intense the heat was," Dr. Pou tells Safer. "It was relentless. It was suffocating. It made it extremely difficult to breathe. And with the heat came the terrible smell from all of the human waste and the fact that we didn't have water."

Occasional helicopters or small boats would evacuate some patients, but nurses Cheri Landry and Lori Budo say that was rare.

"It was like, where are the boats? Where are the helicopters? Why isn't anybody coming?" Landry recalls.

Neither Landry nor Budo says they were thinking of getting on one of those boats. "Not until everybody else was out as far as patients or visitors or families. I mean, we were there for the duration," Landry explains.