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"It was battle conditions … "

17 February 2006

The Louisiana attorney general’s office is investigating whether mercy killings took place in a New Orleans hospital after Katrina hit. I heard it this morning in on NPR, but it seems CNN reported it back in October, as well.

I understand the fear many people have about euthanasia, how easy it would be to get caught up in a slippery slope of convenience and deafness to the desires of those who would become victims. But, one of the results of advanced medical research is that today more and more people are living longer, but are dependent on highly sensitive hospital environments for survival: special diets, life-supporting machines, consistent drug intake, etc.

The CNN piece gives a clear picture of what life was like at the hospital in the days after Katrina:

Food was running low, sanitation wasn’t working, and temperatures inside soared to 110 degrees. Floodwaters had isolated the hospital, where about 312 patients — many of them critically ill — were being treated when Katrina hit.

No one knew when rescuers would arrive. Without power to operate medical devices, staff could only provide basic care. Evacuations were sporadic — an occasional boat or helicopter picking up patients.

“It was battle conditions,” said Fran Butler, a nurse manager. “It was as bad as being out in the field.”

The NPR story focuses on the seventh floor: a floor dedicated to long-term care. In other words, the patients surviving on the most delicate, most highly advanced equipment and medical care.

I can’t help but think that the doctor and nurses involved were doing the best they could in terrible circumstances. I’m not seeing maliciousness, I’m seeing people stuck in a problem not of their making, trying to alleviate pain and discomfort to those they are bound to help. Sometimes, help means ending pain. Imagine the reality of what survival without 21st-century medical care would have meant for these critically ill patients.

Yes, mercy killing. With emphasis on mercy.

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