NEW ORLEANS (CN) - After a second review of the case of a 79-year-old woman who died at New Orleans Memorial Hospital days after Hurricane Katrina, Coroner Frank Minyard said he cannot classify the death as a homicide. Minyard said Thursday that he hopes this will mark "the end of the Memorial Hospital hurricane situation."
Minyard said the cause of Jannie Burgess's death is undetermined, though he acknowledged that medical records and public statements from a Memorial Hospital doctor on duty after the hurricane indicate that Burgess was given potentially lethal doses of morphine.
Burgess's case was reopened after an August 2009 New York Times and ProPublica article quoted Memorial Dr. Ewing Cook saying Memorial patients were given morphine and other drugs to hasten their deaths after the hurricane devastated New Orleans. Flood waters reached the lower floors of the hospital and its medical staff scrambled to make quick decisions on behalf of more than 200 patients.
The ProPublica article reports that Cook dragged himself up several flights of stairs in 90-degree heat, to find Burgess barely alive and requiring assistance from four nurses desperately needed elsewhere.
"To Cook, a drug that had been dripping into Burgess's IV for days provided an answer. Morphine, a powerful narcotic, is frequently used to control severe pain or discomfort. But the drug can also slow breathing, and suddenly introducing much higher doses can lead to death," ProPublica reported.
''If you don't think that by giving a person a lot of morphine you're not prematurely sending them to their grave, then you're a very naïve doctor,'' Cook is quoted saying. ''We kill 'em.''
Minyard said Thursday that he tried to talk with Cook, but Cook's attorney, Ralph Capitelli, blocked access.
"Certainly the doctor's intent would be important" in considering a homicide classification, Minyard said.
According to the Times-Picayune, Burgess's body was among more than 1,000 sent to a makeshift morgue in St. Gabriel, La. Minyard, a gynecologist, said pathologists conducted the initial autopsy 3 weeks after the storm, long enough that blood and other bodily fluids were no longer viable for narcotics testing. But because of complaints of euthanasia at Memorial, tissue samples from Burgess and several other deceased Memorial patients were sent to a lab for complete toxicology.
Minyard did not declare any of the cases homicides.
As for Burgess, Minyard said Thursday, "I don't think -and I could be wrong -I don't think the morphine contributed as much to her demise as her physical condition. This patient was extremely sick." She'd had surgery the week before and had been on "morphine around the clock. She'd had kidney failure. She'd had liver failure."
On behalf of Cook, Capitelli read a statement: "As attorney for Dr. Cook, I believe under all the facts of the investigation that I am aware of, Dr. Minyard's decision today is the correct decision. Our client stayed at Memorial after Katrina for the sole purpose of helping patients under what we should all remember were totally intolerable conditions."
Speaking of Burgess's many health problems, including advanced uterine cancer, kidney failure and blood poisoning, Minyard said it was probably not the morphine that killed her, but cancer and kidney failure were "mostly" the culprits. "I'm saying 'mostly' because we don't really know. And ... you have to be sure when you're saying the word 'homicide.'"
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.