NEW ORLEANS—The physician who sparked an investigation into possible hospital mercy killings following Hurricane Katrina said Monday that hospital staff discussed ending patients' suffering but never used the word "euthanasia."
"It wasn't so much a word, it was phrasing: `The patients are suffering and how do we end their suffering?'" said Dr. Bryant King in his first substantive interview since news of the probe broke last week.
He said he overheard staffers discussing the options on Sept. 1 in a second-floor lobby of Memorial Medical Center. The area was the main portal for patient evacuations by boat and helicopter from the flooded hospital in the desperate days after Katrina.
He refused to identify those involved in the conversation because of the Louisiana attorney general's investigation. But he said the tenor of the discussion led him to believe that senior staff at Memorial already had discussed the issue of ending patients' suffering.
"It appeared they were proceeding with that plan," said King, who has repeatedly asserted that he has no knowledge that euthanasia was ultimately practiced.
"I think that is an absolutely horrible proposition," said King, a contract physician who'd been at Memorial only a few weeks. "My job is trying to keep them alive."
King said he fled the facility about three hours after he overheard the discussion, before patient evacuations were completed.
Officials with Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare Corp., which operates Memorial and four other hospitals in New Orleans, said Monday that they had no comment on King's assertions.
Dr. Glenn Casey, the head of anesthesiology at Memorial, said he was in hospital staff meetings held every 12 hours during the crisis to discuss operations. He said mercy killings were never discussed and that King never notified management of such conversations.
"You can't be everywhere at all times," said Casey, adding that it was theoretically possible some staffers could have discussed the issue.
But euthanizing patients without administrators finding out would have been difficult, Casey said. Doctors are required to order potentially lethal medicines, such as morphine, from the hospital pharmacy, which would have notified administrators about any unusual requests, Casey said.
"I feel very strongly that it would have gotten back to us," he said.
Casey said if King overheard such conversations, he should have told administrators.
Casey, who never met King while he worked at Memorial, said leaving the hospital without reporting such discussions to administrators struck him as "cowardly."
Two days after the hurricane made landfall, rising floodwaters shorted generators and batteries at the sprawling Memorial medical complex in uptown New Orleans. The power interruption shut down critical support equipment, such as ventilators and dialysis machines.
About 2,000 people were in the hospital at the time, including more than 300 patients. Temperatures in the facility rose to over 100 degrees and it took days to evacuate all the patients.
Frank Minyard, the Orleans Parish coroner, said his office has autopsied at least 45 bodies taken from the hospital as part of the investigation.
The probe into what happened at Memorial is part of a broader inquiry into the practices of 13 nursing homes and six hospitals where patients died during Katrina. Some family members have alleged that some patients died because of mistreatment or neglect.
The investigation into Memorial and other facilities continues, said Kris Wartelle of the state attorney general's office. She said she couldn't comment on any conclusions drawn from the autopsies.
King said investigators had interviewed him as part of the probe.
Though ethicists say mercy killings are illegal and unethical in medical situations, at least one relative of a woman who died after the hurricane said euthanasia might have been a humane option.
Carol Verret-Besnard of Colorado said her 81-year-old mother-in-law, Lucille Besnard, died at another New Orleans hospital of hyperthermia, "a result of the extreme heat, no water and no food for three days."
Verret-Besnard said it would have been kinder to end her suffering.
"She is now in peace, but we, her family, are not," Verret-Besnard said.
(Tritten reports for the Sun News of Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Latson for the Olympian in Olympia, Wash.; and Washburn for The Charlotte Observer.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): STORMS-MERCYKILLINGS
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