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Veterinarian Perspective on Human Euthanasia During Hurricane Katrina

It has been five years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and devastated people, pets, and the entire Gulf Coast community.  A year ago, New York Times Magazine featured a profound article that struck a personal and professional cord with me.  Sheri Fink's article, titled The Deadly Choices at Memorial, chronicles the legal and ethical struggles faced by Memorial Medical Center’s doctors and nurses in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.  I connected on many levels with this report, as my clinical veterinary practices requires me to guide pet owners through quality of life dilemmas often ending with the decision to humanely euthanize their beloved pet.   I after reading the article, I started to write my perspective on this topic.  Work and life interfered, but I was recently motivated to complete my project after reading “Better” by Atul Gawande. Gawande brings to light to the role of human medical practitioners face when electively putting a person to death. Gawande compelled me to share my feelings on human euthanasia in the wake of hurricane Katrina.   The post-Katrina floodwaters caused power outages at Memorial and created the need for urgent patient evacuation.  Medical supplies were rapidly depleting, climate control was nonexistent, and the threat of violent civilians entering the hospital was growing.  Memorial’s doctors, nurses, and other medical practitioners worked under extreme conditions of high stress and sleep deprivation to provide patient care during Memorial’s evacuation.   Hospitalized patients suffered from a variety of heath conditions making evacuation of some patients potentially life threatening or impossible.  Those afflicted by more severe medical conditions died or reportedly were euthanized with a cocktail of injectable narcotics including Morphine and Midazolam.  Morphine is an opoid pain reliever, while Midazolam is a benzodiazepine derived muscle relaxer, sedative, and anti-anxiety medication.   Memorial’s doctors made their decision to euthanize based on the likelihood severely ill and terminal patients would survive the evacuation process.   Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport served as makeshift care facility for those transported from Memorial.  Basic nursing care was so insufficient at the evacuation site that a Memorial doctor claimed that the patients who received the injectable drug combination would not have survived beyond the temporary treatment premises.   As a veterinarian and animal health advocate, determining that a patient’s interests are best served by euthanasia is a circumstance I routinely face.  Working in an emergency practice, I face situations where the decision to euthanize a pet is made on an urgent basis.  Patients present for evaluation after being hit by a car, in the advanced stages of terminal illness, and unresponsive after ingesting toxic substances (among the myriad of other critical situations). The decision to not pursue further treatment is achieved with the intention of ending an animal’s suffering in the face of an unlikely, time consuming, or costly recovery.   Once the decision to end the pet’s life has been achieved, I minimize discomfort by administering pain relieving medications similar to those used by Memorial’s doctors.  The life ending injection is an overdose of a barbiturate anesthetic, which rapidly causes respiratory and cardiac arrest.  All efforts are made to that ensure the patient’s final moments are painless.   I empathize with Memorial’s doctors as they made life or death decisions they faced in post-Katrina environment in New Orleans.  Before we judge, criticize, or punish the parties involved, consider what you would do in the desperate chaos that consumed Memorial.  As an advocate of humane euthanasia for both animals and people, I support the decisions made by Memorial’s doctors to end the suffering of patients already hovering near the brink of death and unlikely to survive the evacuation process.   Thank you for reading my article. To receive my next article via email, please press the “Don’t Miss a Blog Post” button on the right upper corner of this page. Copyright of this article is owned by Dr. Patrick Mahaney, Veterinarian and Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist. Republishing any portion of this article must first be authorized by Dr. Patrick Mahaney. Requests for republishing must be approved by Dr. Patrick Mahaney and received in written format.
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