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New Orleans doctor recalls dire scene at hospital

Mercy killings suspected at medical center in wake of Katrina

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Dr. Bryant King

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(CNN) -- The Louisiana attorney general's office is investigating allegations that three days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, staff at Memorial Medical Center discussed euthanizing patients they thought might not survive. The attorney general has requested that autopsies be performed on all 45 bodies taken from the hospital.

CNN's Aaron Brown talked to Dr. Bryant King -- who was working at Memorial when conditions were at their worst. King said he did not witness any acts of euthanasia, but "most people know something happened that shouldn't have happened." Brown talked with Dr. King on "Newsnight with Aaron Brown and Anderson Cooper."

BROWN: There are so many questions. Was there, just to set the scene, a sense of desperation in the hospital among the staff and among those patients who were well enough to sense anything?

KING: I don't know if there was so much a sense of desperation, as there was a sense that everyone was really concerned about the fact that we weren't evacuated.

Being one of the major hospitals in the New Orleans metro area, we thought that we would have been evacuated in a logical, procedural manner -- which you would expect from a normal hospital -- sickest patients first. The people who aren't sick stay around until the end. And when that didn't happen, people became very concerned.

BROWN: If there was wasn't a sense of desperation, what is it, then, that you think led people ... to conclude that mercy killing was an appropriate action?

KING: I think that -- that, as time progressed, people became more and more concerned.

And their concern bordered on desperation. But, I don't know if everyone reached that point. But there were certainly people who decided that they would rather be out of there. And they wanted to be evacuated as quickly as possible.

And I'm not sure if that qualifies as a sense of desperation or not.

BROWN: Do -- do you believe that any patient would be alive today and recovering had they not had these activities that you suspect happened?

KING: Well, I think that, if the evacuation and the rescue effort had been conducted in a manner that we were prepared for... then -- this situation would not have ever even occurred in the first place. So, I can't answer the second question, because the first question is the impetus for the second question.

BROWN: All right. Let me try it differently. I think you can, because -- I'm not sure I framed it correctly. So, let me try again.

The condition of the patients who you believe may have been euthanized, was it such that, if they had been given appropriate care on Thursday or Friday of that week, they might have survived and recovered?

KING: I think the patients that were particularly ill could have been given appropriate care in a different location, which brings us back to -- my initial point, that we couldn't provide the care that they needed in that facility, so they needed to have been evacuated, and that evacuation needed to have occurred ...

BROWN: Were they terminal, Dr. King?

KING: ...There were patients that were terminal, absolutely. There were definitely patients there who were terminal. And they were labeled as DNR [do not resuscitate] patients. Some of whom were Level 3 patients, based on our triage system.

There were definitely patients who, if they stayed there without any further care, would have died. That probably goes without saying. And any physician would have come to that same conclusion.

BROWN: All right. So, I'm not asking this at all to justify or to make judgments on what they did. I'm trying to understand, to a certain degree, who it is we're talking about. So, you had a set of patients who had DNRs, do not resuscitate.

KING: That's correct.

BROWN: These are very sick people, people who were terminal. And these are the people that you and they, the doctors and the administrator, are sort of focused on; is that right?

KING: Well, we focused on all the patients. We treated all the patients the same, with the same degree of care.

But the DNR patients that were there, they were mixed in the population with the patients who weren't DNR. We didn't separate them out and say, the DNRs are here. We gave them DNR status. But we didn't separate them out and say, sit them over here and we will take the other patients... to some area of the hospital.

BROWN: You believe patients were euthanized. Do you believe a patient who was not DNR was euthanized?

KING: I think that the patients that were on the second floor, probably, at some point, things -- there were things done that shouldn't have been done.

Right now, I'm attempting to not impugn in any way the investigation being undertaken by the state's attorney's office in Louisiana. So, I don't really want to say anything that might undermine their investigation.

BROWN: OK. ...You said that there was no palliative care being given to these people. So, you have these patients who were in considerable pain, and they weren't getting any pain medication at the time? Is that right?

KING: Well, the assumption that they were in considerable pain, I don't know that that's necessarily true.

There were people there that may have or may not have been in some degree of pain. But we didn't have people there with metastatic cancer or large groups of patients of that type. We had people who were suffering because it was 110 degrees, and they weren't being monitored the way we normally monitor patients, because we didn't have electricity. So, monitors weren't available.

We had no air-conditioning. So, things were uncomfortable, but I don't know if they were necessarily in pain. Therefore, I don't think that it was necessary to treat them palliatively, so to speak.

BROWN: So, these were people who, in your estimation, were simply really uncomfortable. It wasn't a case where you might give someone routinely, a doctor appropriately might give someone a morphine injection, for example, to alleviate pain? Is that right?

KING: Not in large -- not en masse, absolutely not, absolutely not.

These were patients who -- we triaged these patients every day. Starting Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, every day, or a couple of times a day, we went around and we said, this patient is tachycardic or this patient's blood sugar is elevated or whatever.

But these weren't patients who were terminally ill en masse. There were a couple people there. There were a few, absolutely, who were terminally ill. But, for the most part, these were people who, if we had been able to evacuate them to other medical facilities, who would have survived and would have been fine, for the most part.

Or not that they would have been fine -- but they would have survived and gotten back to their level that they were before Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

BROWN: Why, then, if these people were not terminal, do you think this discussion, let alone this action, took place at all?

KING: That's really difficult to say, because I wasn't there at the conversation that was had.

I only have the conversation that was brought to me. ... I don't know why they had the discussion in the first place.

BROWN: At the end of the day -- just a last question -- we appreciate your patience tonight -- is there any doubt in your mind, not that things went on that shouldn't have gone on -- I want something more specific -- is there any doubt in your mind that people were euthanized in that hospital during those days?

KING: I don't think it's fair for me to answer that question, because that would be accusing someone of something that I really wasn't there at the hospital at the time that that happened.

When I left the hospital, ... as I stated before, I had seen only what I stated, that there was a person with syringes, not that I saw them give anything.

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