Sheri Fink

Author of Five Days at Memorial, New York Times Correspondent

What follows is a synthesis of questions that the author has been asked regarding Dr. Anna Pou, one of the people written about in Five Days at Memorial

Q: What's the current status of Dr. Anna Pou, the physician who was arrested but not indicted for second degree murder in some of the patient deaths at Memorial?

As of spring, 2014, she was on the faculty of Louisiana State University, where she had been promoted in recent years to full professor, teaching students and practicing medicine and surgery. In May, 2014, Dr. Pou lectured on the topic of ethics in disasters at a conference sponsored by the healthcare accreditation organization the Joint Commission. Many of the other health professionals written about in the book are still practicing in good standing. Quite a few of them came out to events during the book tour for Five Days at Memorial and they seemed to be doing well, but said they were still grappling with their experiences.

Q: What is the position of the current Orleans Parish district attorney?

After an article I wrote about Memorial in 2009, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon A. Cannizzaro, Jr. testified in a court case in 2010 that he believed "human beings were killed as a result of actions by doctors." He added: "Whether or not there was a homicide and whether or not there is a case that can be brought are different matters." He said he did not anticipate bringing further action. Mr. Cannizzaro remained the District Attorney as of 2014.

Q: How did you originally come to speak with Dr. Pou and her supporters?

A: I wrote to her a few months after her arrest. I was a freelance reporter and Harvard fellow and had come to New Orleans to lecture at Tulane (ProPublica, the news organization that later co-published my story about Memorial with the New York Times Magazine, hadn't been founded yet). Being a former relief worker in conflict and disaster areas, I was interested in the health professionals and patients who had endured Katrina.

Dr. Pou referred me to her attorney. I asked him about interviewing her for a possible magazine profile and gave him examples of some of my journalistic work, including a copy of my first book, War Hospital, which was about a hospital where medical professionals worked under siege, with no electricity and little in the way of supplies, for three years during the war and genocide in Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Her lawyer wasn't eager to grant an interview as the grand jury was weighing her fate, but he mentioned Dr. Pou would be attending and possibly speaking at a fundraiser gala and small disaster medicine conference organized by her former colleagues in Texas. He put me in touch with the organizers. Because I was coming to write about Dr. Pou, not to support her, I was told at the door I didn't have to pay. That was an interesting dilemma for a journalist, because it could be seen as a conflict of interest to accept something of value for free from people you’re writing about. It was a contentious story, and it was important to remain unbiased, so I paid the minimum entry fee.

Dr. Pou and her attorney sat down with me for about an hour that day, but that was mostly for introductions and for her to share how wary she was of the media at that point. Her family and friends, by contrast, were eager to speak because they saw her as a very caring doctor and wanted the public to know this.

Dr. Pou granted an in-depth interview a year later. She still couldn't speak freely about the events at the center of the accusations against her, so to tell those parts of the story I sought the observations of many of her colleagues at the hospital. She also made a few public statements, and her attorney answered some of my questions. Along with local journalists, I taped the rally that Dr. Pou's public relations firm and supporters organized in New Orleans, and I interviewed attendees there, some of whom had served during Katrina.

The text of Five Days at Memorial and extensive endnotes indicate which versions of events are contested and whose perspectives are being represented at a particular point in the book. There is an author’s note at the beginning that tells the reader how the book was reported, and what conventions I used in telling the story. For example, anything in quotation marks was reproduced exactly as it was recalled in interviews or from transcripts or other primary sources.

Q: You wove the story of one of Dr. Pou’s cancer patients, James O’Bryant, and his wife, Brenda, through the second half of the book. The arrest interfered with Dr. Pou’s ability to care for Mr. O’Bryant. How did you come to meet the O’Bryants?

A: When I interviewed Dr. Pou’s department chairman, Dr. Dan Nuss, in July 2007, he mentioned that one of their patients was willing to speak with the media. Doctors normally have to maintain patient confidentiality, but in this case, the patient and his family had given permission to speak about his treatment, which meant there were no ethical or legal issues along those lines.

Mrs. O’Bryant invited me to her home to do the interview. She took me into her bedroom to meet her husband, who was by then very sick and couldn’t speak. It's typical to photograph people to help remember them later when writing, and someone later asked whether I'd photographed Mr. O'Bryant that day. I didn't photograph him or raise the question, given his condition and the fact that it didn't seem essential. Even so, I don't think it would necessarily be wrong for a journalist to ask to do that, as long as the request was made sensitively and the family's wishes were respected.

Mrs. O’Bryant and her daughter expressed love and admiration for Dr. Pou and Dr. Nuss, and I was struck by how closely the course of Mr. O’Bryant’s illness intertwined with Dr. Pou’s legal tribulations, and the cost of her decision to curtail her surgical work during this period. Mrs. O’Bryant’s faith in Dr. Pou was strong; she said she wouldn’t believe the accusations that Dr. Pou had killed patients no matter what the evidence was.

I stayed in touch with the family for many months, and we spoke again before the book was published. We went over every section that referred to their family for accuracy, and Mrs. O’Bryant seemed pleased with it. “You made my day calling,” she said at the end of our talk. This was typical of the generosity of families I met over the course of reporting on these events.

Q: How did Dr. Pou react to the book?

A: Dr. Pou began expressing criticisms of the book before it was published. This was consistent with her feelings about news coverage in general about her case, and her reaction to my ProPublica/New York Times Magazine article that preceded the book in 2009—so it wasn’t unexpected.

Her supporters have pointed out that she has to live with the fact that there is no statute of limitations on murder, and charges could be brought against her again at any time. She has an understandable bias against the airing of any evidence that she was involved in the injections of some of the roughly twenty patients who died at Memorial with either morphine, midazolam, or both in their bodies.

I've spent many years reporting on traumatic situations, and I took Dr. Pou's concerns seriously as they were expressed to me over the years by her public relations team and attorney. I worked hard to be both fair and accurate. Given the gravity of what happened, and the potential that knowledge of what occurred at Memorial could contribute to preventing future disasters, it wouldn’t have been right to forgo telling this story.

Nobody can claim a monopoly on the truth, but readers can be assured that my goal for six years was to seek it and to report and write the most accurate history possible of these consequential events and the people involved in them. 

 

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