My previous post, an update on the investigation into deaths at Memorial Hospital during hurricane Katrina, elicited this comment from a reader, Carla:
It was not the district attorney who had these people arrested. It was attorney general of the State, Charles Foti, who had them arrested despite that they were not charged. He made a big grandstand about it saying they were murderers, much like Mike Nifong said the Duke lacrosses players were rapists. The atty. general can investigate pursuant to his powers under the Medicaid Fraud Act. Then he has to turn things over to the local district attorney. Now the district attorney has convened a grand jury to see if he can charge the nurses and doc. that the atty. general arrested. The local coroner says he cannot determine cause of death. May I suggest heat, lack of medical equipment, stress and failure of government. But not lack of care from those who chose to stay behind to help patients and did not leave until all patients were evacuated.
I stand corrected on referring to Charles Foti as district attorney, rather than Louisiana Attorney General. And I wholeheartedly agree that he may well have used the Memorial death case opportunistically for personal political gain: the shadow of Mike Nifong looms long, and politically ambitious prosecutors can destroy lives by abusing the power of their office.
In fact, almost everything about this case begs for dismissal — it is fraught with extraordinary circumstances which solicit quick judgment and counsel hasty condemnation. A raging storm roars through a fragile city long known for its vulnerability, frail aging levies its sole defense against certain disaster. A city flooded, its weakest citizens trapped in a hospital-turned-hellhole. Heroic doctors and desperate nurses battling impossible circumstances, tending to the sick and dying, utterly abandoned by corrupt, inept civil servants and emergency services overwhelmed and overtaxed. An Attorney General exploiting public horror at the trapped and hopeless, sacrificing valiant healers to the gods of political ambition and self-aggrandizement. We desperately want to avert our eyes in disgust, having witnessed yet another example of corrupt politicians and cynical civil servants. The news is old; heap scorn and hurry along; judge harshly and hastily dismiss; feel that self-righteous contempt which comforts the mind while killing the spirit.
Yet pause we must. This perfect storm of pathos and perfidy masks a simple question which we ignore at our peril:
Did patients die by the hand of their healers?
We may never know that answer for certain — witnesses were few, bodies too decomposed to offer reliable forensic evidence of final moments spent in fetid darkness and fevered fear.
Yet disquieting voices whisper through the howling winds of cynical outrage and callous contempt. Media reports and court documents speak of doctors and nurses at the hospital overhearing discussion of mercy killing, and hear of a doctor willing to do it. An administrator and other hospital personnel hear of an evacuation plan which which leaves no living patient behind and speaks of lethal injection. A doctor is seen holding a handful of syringes, and nurses stop providing comfort measures and block access to the ward. The accused physician’s Curriculum Vitae mentions her attendance at a conference on physician-assisted suicide — a reference later removed from her current CV.
Now, perhaps none of this occurred, or was simply hearsay. Perhaps it was all talk and no action. Much of the investigation is still under wraps, and substantial information is as yet undisclosed. Yet it is striking how few — especially in the medical profession — even stop to consider that it may indeed have happened, choosing instead to embrace the narrative of heroic physicians persecuted by the politically ambitious.
Physicians are no strangers to abuses of power for political gain. The compliance enforcement for federal health programs exposes them to extraordinary penalties for failure to grasp its byzantine regulations and mind-numbing documentation standards. Even more relevant to this situation is the often-archaic suspicion of medical disciplinary boards — typically staffed by clueless political appointees — who view every physician managing chronic or terminal pain as an enabler of addicts. There is, of course, some substantial support for euthanasia among physicians (and even more so in the population at large) — and thus these see no reason to find such action, had it occurred, unethical or reprehensible in any way.
But perhaps most importantly, both among physicians and in our culture at large, there is a sense of moral incrementalism, a relativism deeply ingrained, that context rules conscience, that particulars trump principles. Our culture is bathed in shades of gray. From the severe social strictures of multiculturalism, where no group may be criticized nor culture condemned; to situation ethics, in school and the workplace; to postmodern education, where no truth exists and all narratives are valid; to media where terrorists become “insurgents” and fascists “reformers” — there exists no longer a language of principle, no words for right or wrong, no common ground to condemn that which is reprehensible. We have lost our compass; no more are actions measured against absolutes, or practices judged by principles. We grade on a curve — and everyone passes. Who are we, after all, to judge? Your values are fine for you, but not for me — for they are, in the end, only your values.
The Memorial case may well prove empty, another unscrupulous prosecutor destroying lives for personal gain. Judgment of the accused may well raise suspicions, yet fail to meet the legal standards for conviction.
Yet however they are judged, we have already been judged — by our indifference to the consequences of creeping dissolution, by consciences made too comfortable by compromise and corruption, by malleable morals and inconstant integrity.
Will we recognize great evil when it comes upon us? Or will we, instead, greet it as an old companion, comfortable and familiar — and wonder why we no longer have a solid foundation on which to stand, as foul waters rise strong around us?