A Theological Crisis in New Orleans

The medical doctor charged with euthanizing several critically ill patients at Memorial Hospital after Katrina is the lead story in all of today’s local news. Dr. Anna Pou, pronounced “poe,” is an ear-nose-throat doctor who specializes in cancer treatments. Her supporters are coming out of the woodwork. Thursday’s front page headline reads: “Doctor’s colleagues rush to her defense.” One local television station gave five minutes Thursday night to Pou’s sister and brother to defend her.

Supporters tell how Dr. Pou is so devoted to her patients she gives each one her cell phone number. A doctor tells how she was called in the middle of the night due to the hemorrhaging of a patient. She rushed to the hospital and called in a battery of specialists who worked for hours doing intricate surgery to staunch the blood flow and repair the damage. “That’s just the kind of doctor she is,” they say. A devout Catholic, “one of the greatest doctors I’ve ever worked with,” and “one of those rare people who has devoted her life to the care of her patients and the practice of medicine.”

Dr. Pou and two nurses, Lori Budo and Cheri Landry, were arrested Monday night and booked with four counts of second-degree murder. I don’t follow the legalities here very well, because the same reports state that the three women were released without being formally charged. From here, the attorney general gives his information to the Orleans Parish District Attorney, Eddie Jordan, who will presumably present this to a grand jury and they will decide whether to indict the medical workers.

The story is this. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Dr. Pou decided to stay at the hospital with the patients. We hear reports–I know nothing of this personally–of other doctors leaving. The area around the hospital flooded, shutting down the electrical power, the hospital’s emergency generator, and the sanitation system. Meanwhile, temperatures soared to 100 outside and to critical levels inside the closed buildings. In all 45 patients died at Memorial, including 34 who died during or just after the storm. Dr. Pou and the nurses seem to have been there all the way, going to extraordinary lengths to provide what comfort they could.

Twenty-four of those who died were in the section of Memorial known as LifeCare, which was an acute care center on the 7th floor. We pastors who visited there saw it as a nursing home inside the hospital, but we are told LifeCare Hospital is a separately owned and run contractor. The attorney general states that LifeCare was not involved in the killing of the patients who died, that Dr. Pou took over and told people in the area she would take responsibility for whatever happened. Lethal coses of painkillers were deliberately given to the four people who died. The attorney general pointed out that, as conditions worsened in the hospital, Dr. Pou decided to put these four people out of their misery. One was a man in his 60s who was not critically ill, but obese and with some paralysis which would make moving him an impossibility given their situation.

The drugs were a mixture of morphine and midazolam hydrochloride, which is a depressant that works on the central nervous system and goes by the brand name of Versed. The four who died were found to have fatal levels of those drugs, yet none had been taking them prior to the hurricane, Attorney General Foti said.

Dr. Pou’s attorney says experts will be called to challenge these findings. A local attorney who called Pou’s office Wednesday morning to offer his services free of charge was told by the receptionists, “You’re the 10th caller.” Blase McCarthy said, “I can’t imagine that she would hurt a fly.” Dr. Isabel Ochsner agreed and said, “I’m so ashamed of what someone has put her through. For someone of her caliber to be wrongfully accused of killing is a sin.”

Two letters addressed this situation on Thursday’s editorial page. Deepak Bhatnagar of Kenner wrote, “I am amazed at how the tragic death of hospital patients is being handled by law enforcement…. How come we haven’t handcuffed and arrested someone from the Corps of Engineers whose faulty decisions led to the catastrophe in the first place? How come we have not handcuffed and arrested city, state, or FEMA officials who did not make decisions at all, delaying evacuations and resulting in patients dying? I would not be in the least bit surprised if, after watching these events unfold, conscientious doctors and nurses in New Orleans (or for that matter any other city) would be the first to evacuate in such a catastrophic event.”

Jennifer Ramo of New Orleans wrote, “Clearly, the sole rationale for prosecuting people like Dr. Pou and the two nurses is to use the legal system to scapegoat three individuals instead of blaming the proper parties: the government and the owners of Memorial Medical Center. If Dr. Anna Maria Pou and the two nurses felt that they had to make a decision to let these poor people, who were on the brink of death, die without more pain and terror than they had already endured, they did so because they felt they had no other options. They did so because they had no hope that anyone was coming to rescue them…. They should not be arrested and prosecuted. My heart is broken for them and their families.”

The attorney general assures the public he not only has the chemical analyses from the bodies of the victims, but eyewitness accounts of people in the building who saw the accused administering these fatal doses and talking about it.

As a minister of the gospel, I find myself intrigued by the accuseds’ defenders using such rationales as “such a fine person, she could not do such a thing,” “a genuinely good person,” and “devoted to her patients.” All of which I feel confident is true. But there is a problem.

The best of us are still capable of doing wrong things. A loving mother breaks under heavy emotional stresses and drowns her children. A minister’s wife shoots her husband, then takes the children for a vacation. A pastor who has devoted decades to serving God and caring for people leaves his wife for another woman.

Spend a little time inside the penitentiaries of this land and you will meet some of the finest people on the planet. This convict was a minister, that one a loving grandmother, over there a fine father who was devoted to his children. But they got caught up in something–an addiction, a depression, something. When they loved their families and helped their neighbors, they were being true to themselves. They were not play-acting. When they started on that downward spiral of sinful acts that eventually sent them to prison, they were also being true to who they were. Because they are sinners.

I am; you are. “All have sinned.” We are sinners by nature and sinners by choice. Heredity and environment, nature and nurture–cut it any way you please, it still comes up that there is a rottenness in the soul of all of us. A rebellion against God. A sickness of which self-centeredness is the heart and core.

Some readers of this blog will remember First Baptist-Jackson, Mississippi’s wonderful saint of the 60s and 70s, Marguerite Briscoe, a retired school principal. She had a Christlikeness about her, a peace and love, an openness and a strength that you knew were the Lord’s doings. I would rather have her praying for me than anyone I ever knew. I once said to her, “Marguerite, you are the finest Christian I know.” She smiled gently and said, “Oh, honey, if you just knew.”

Forgive me for this one if it offends anyone. The way I heard it, it was Dr. Cal Guy who said it.

This wonderful professor at Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was once invited by a former student to come to his little west Texas town for a revival meeting. “While you are here,” the pastor said, “I want you to visit Mr. Crenshaw. He’s an older gentleman whom we’ve never been able to reach with the gospel. The fact is, he’s such a highly principled man, he probably has higher standards than our people, and that’s been a hangup.”

Dr. Guy–assuming he’s the correct protagonist in this story; if anyone knows otherwise, I’d like to hear–assured the pastor he would be glad to talk with anyone he chose. The revival started on Sunday morning and that day at least four or five people told the visiting professor about Mr. Crenshaw, emphasizing what high moral values he held. Two people said the same on Monday. That afternoon, the pastor decided it was time for that visit.

Mr. Crenshaw welcomed the pastor and visiting preacher in his home, and offered them glasses of iced tea. After some preliminary visiting, the young pastor said, “Mr. Crenshaw, I wanted my professor to meet you and to talk with you about the Lord. Now, Mr. Crenshaw, I know you are a good man. You have high standards and you probably outlive some of the members of our church….” Suddenly, Dr. Guy said, “Hold it!”

He looked across the table at his host and said, “You know, Crenshaw, ever since I’ve been in this little town of yours, I’ve been hearing people telling me what a good man you are. And I just want you to know I’m not buying it.” He paused, leaned forward, and said, “You know, sir, if you are a man like I’m a man…you’re as rotten as hell.”

Mr. Crenshaw smiled and said, “You’re right. I am.” What followed was a serious conversation about a Savior who welcomes sinners and has the power to forgive them and make them new persons. That day, Mr. Crenshaw came into the kingdom of God through faith in Christ.

“There is none good, but God alone.” We have that authoritative word from the Lord Himself, spoken to a man whom we identify as the “rich young ruler.” (Found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.)

Trouble is, we don’t believe it. Not really. Whether it’s naivete on our part or simply ignorance of human nature or an unwillingness to believe Scripture, we endow certain dedicated and wonderful human beings in our spheres with attributes they do not possess. Our doctors could not euthanize an elderly patient. Yet doctors perform abortions by the millions, every day. Parents are so dedicated, teachers are so self-giving, pastors are so godly. Yet, some in these categories are arrested somewhere every day for abusing little children or embezzling funds or selling drugs. I reluctantly admit that I have known people in these callings who have been arrested for these and other crimes.

And yet, I say to you that the perpetrators were basically and humanly speaking, good people. Good people who did some truly horrendous things.

The tendency of most people is to read about them in the paper or see them on the news and conclude that they must have been wrong, that this person must have been a devil all along.

A woman who had spent time in a German concentration camp traveled to Israel for the trial of Adolf Eichmann during the 1970s. Eichmann had been responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews and others in these death factories, and after decades of running, had been caught and was on trial for his crimes. Later, the woman told what she experienced. “As Eichmann was brought into the courtroom, I began to cry. Looking at him there, I did not see a demon. He was not the devil incarnate. He was just a little man, ordinary in every way. That’s when it occurred to me that if such an ordinary little man could do such evil things, any of us is capable of anything. And that’s why I was crying. I was crying because I was seeing myself for the sinner that I am.”

In the “Superman Returns” movie, the man of steel reappears after an absence of several years to find Lois Lane receiving a Pulitzer for her column on “Why We Do Not Need Superman.” She tried to explain to him that man does not need a Savior, that he has to work out his own problems. The rest of the movie is devoted to proving her wrong. The world goes from trouble to trouble, with Superman rushing from one disaster to another.

The movie leaves the audience in a kind of limbo or purgatory, with the world outside the theater facing mammoth problems on every side but without a caped hero to rush to its salvation.

Believers know there is indeed a Savior. Only One. Only Jesus.

A Savior is one who saves. Scanning Scripture, we are told that Christ saves us from sin (Matthew 1:21), from our enemies (Luke 1:71), from this generation (Acts 2:40), from wrath (Romans 5:9), and from death (James 5:20).

I can’t find where the Bible says Christ saves us from ourselves in so many words. But that may be the biggest need of all. Thank God He does.

I am not saying Dr. Anna Maria Pou and the nurses killed anyone. I’m saying they were capable, and so are we. The human heart is a wonderful and deceitful thing. It is to be honored, but not trusted. (Jeremiah 17:9)

That’s why we need to love one another and pray for each other. What we must never do is expect ourselves or anyone else to be incapable of sin, even that of the worst sort.

We are in such need of a Savior.

5 thoughts on “A Theological Crisis in New Orleans

  1. [Marty the webmaster says: if you please, off-topic comments and personal attacks should be taken outside.]

  2. You pointed out some of our society’s schizophrenia. Some others that constantly slap me in the face are that we are puritanical in public positions, but base in private actions; we’re a people of peace who wave a big stick for a “negotiation” tool and start wars; we spend $300 billion in Iraq but can’t provide medicine for our elderly, or quality education for young; because the Lord said the earth is ours to steward, we treat it like our personal trash heap.

    Which would be the greater act of love for the nurse? To quietly, peacefully, painlessly stop a beating heart for someone certain to die within hours? Or let the person suffer agony til that bitter end comes while she sits in the corner and watch for the death angel, praying hard for his swift arrival?

    It is an irony beyond comprehension that our attention should be drawn to this drama, and that this nurse should be on trial for whatever may or may not have happened in the cauldron of Katrina

  3. i was a patient of dr. poe while she was at utmb. she WAS the only doctor i ever had there that would email me anytime to answer my needs for help!!!!!!!!! i have the up most respect for her and if she EVER needs me as a character witness i will be there!! thanks you dr. poe !!!

  4. As a Christian, I say “Amen” to this. As a Christian that is dismayed by the Christian Right, I say, for this reason, why would anyone ever think that the death penalty is “what Jesus would do?”

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