NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans district attorney has requested an autopsy on a terminally ill patient whose doctor acknowledged increasing the drugs the patient received in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the city's coroner said Tuesday.
The disclosure came after a state judge last week ordered District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro Jr. to either confirm he's investigating the deaths of patients at Memorial Medical Center or state that no investigation is under way.
The Memorial complex lost power as floodwaters surged around the building in the days after Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. At least 34 patients died as temperatures soared above 100 degrees, and medical examiners subsequently concluded many would have died regardless of the actions of hospital staff.
Coroner Frank Minyard said Tuesday that Cannizzaro has requested just one autopsy in the last month, on a patient who was under the care of Dr. Ewing Cook.
In an article published Aug. 29 by The New York Times, the newspaper said two doctors — Ewing Cook and John Thiele — acknowledged increasing the drugs after the storm that they each gave at least one terminally ill patient.
Minyard said a report on Cook's patient is not complete and hasn't been handed over to the district attorney yet. The coroner has said no patient has been identified who is linked to Thiele's published comments.
Another doctor, Anna Pou, and two nurses were arrested in 2006 in connection with patient deaths at Memorial but a grand jury later declined to indict them. Minyard said Cannizarro has made no request for information on patients cared for by Pou and the two nurses.
After the Times article appeared with the doctor's published statements, Cannizzaro said he had "a legal obligation to evaluate them regarding possible criminal activity." He said at that time he was conducting an evaluation, but his was not a formal investigation, which would require a grand jury hearing evidence.
A spokesman for Cannizzaro's office did not return calls Tuesday.
Dr. Cook did not return a call left on his answering machine.
On the eve of the Times' story, Cook defended his decision to increase the morphine drip to Jannie Burgess, 79, who was dying of uterine cancer and kidney failure. "It was hot, over 100 degrees, four nurses were trapped on the floor caring for her, and we could not get her down," he told The Associated Press on Aug. 28.
If the hurricane had not hit, Cook said the dosage still might have been increased.
"People who get the drugs we are talking about frequently build up a tolerance, so you have to increase the dose," Cook said at the time. "But when you do that every doctor knows what will happen."