The Dark, Twisted Tale of The Scrapped 'American Crime Story: Katrina,'
Although in just a few hours, American Crime Story: Impeachment will hit the small screen, featuring Beanie Feldstein, Sarah Paulson, and John Travolta – to name a few of the show's stars – recounting the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the drama's third season almost centered around an entirely different story of American crime – a series of alleged euthanasias that occurred at a New Orleans hospital in the days following Hurricane Katrina.
Featuring a harrowing glimpse at one of the catastrophic hurricane's lesser-known tragedies, American Crime Story: Katrina had all the ingredients to distinguish itself as the series's most thought-provoking and gut-wrenching installment.
Starring Paulson as Dr. Anna Pou, a cancer surgeon who was on duty amid the storm and later was accused along with two nurses of administering a deadly concoction of sedatives and painkillers to some of the hospital's sickest patients, the show would have been based the book Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by ProPublica reporter, Sherri Fink.
“I’m confident it will air,” John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks said of the series and its complicated production history back in 2017. Although the installment was originally set to cover a broader swath of the hurricane's destruction, Landgraf said that the season's new direction as a medical thriller was a “great idea for a pivot," and that the series was "in really good shape."
Despite this confidence and Executive Producer, Ryan Murphy's strong track record of tackling particularly grandiose tales – after all, he was the creative genius behind Glee, a network television series that notably featured a riot over tater tots, several complex musical numbers, and the now-infamous wheelchair-only rendition of "Proud Mary" – it seems American Crime Story: Katrina posed several unique challenges, some that proved insurmountable.
"Doctors who started out trying to save lives, ended up euthanizing patients," Brad Simpson, an executive on the series told The Hollywood Reporter of the undertaking. "It tracks everything that happened in Katrina. There's people of different classes and races, all in that hospital. There are people that feel like they've been abandoned by their government, and there are people who are making decisions about triage—who lives and who dies—that outside of that bubble look horrific."
Likely requiring the show's team to recreate a flooded, powerless hospital turned-makeshift morgue, depict several emergency helicopter evacuations, and wrangle an entire “Noah's Ark of pets”, as Fink dubbed it in her book, all while tactfully discussing several purported euthanasias knowing the families of the deceased may be tuning in at home, the story's massive scale ultimately proved to be too big.
“We tried developing that. It was just too vast and expensive,” Murphy told Collider of the season's fate back in April 2020. “I ultimately just couldn't figure out how to crack it to be honest,” he continued. “We have many, many, many different Crime Stories in the works, but it's a very hard show. It always takes two years to write. And we never do it, we never move forward unless we're absolutely sure that the scripts are great,” the prolific television producer added.
While this harrowing tale of death amid Hurricane Katrina will ultimately find its way to the small screen in an upcoming mini-series for Apple TV+ entitled Five Days at Memorial, which is set to wrap filming later this month according to Variety, the story at hand is not only one of American crime, but of realized worse-case scenarios, a terrifying thought experiment come to life.
What Happened At Memorial Medical Center?
When Hurricane Katrina first made landfall in New Orleans, Louisiana on Monday, August 29, 2005, Memorial Medical Center had found itself a makeshift shelter yet again, hospital staffers toting “their families and pets, as well as coolers packed with muffulettas,” to hunker down in the confines of its brick structure, Fink detailed in her Pulitzer-winning New York Times article, "The Deadly Choices at Memorial." Housing roughly 2,000 people, 200 of which were patients and 600 of which were staffers, by the time the storm began to make landfall, the hospital's slumber-party-esque energy quickly shifted to pure terror and confusion as the building shook, trembling from Katrina's approximately 100 mile-per-hour winds. Staffers covered the inside of windows – some of which still broke from the force of the storm – with plywood and relocated patients who could be moved into hallways. Still, the building's basement began to take on water.
“When the storm hit, patients screamed as windows shattered under a hail of rocks from nearby rooftops,” Fink wrote. “The hospital groaned and shook violently.”
In the early hours of the morning, the city's power – including the electricity to Memorial Medical Center – went out, the hospital's generator howling in its place. Intended to only power necessary medical equipment, some lights, and a few electrical outlets throughout the premise, the AC turned off. The temperature within Memorial Medical Center, along with the levels of water in the building's basement that threatened the first floor, began to rise, hitting 100 degrees. A handful of box fans helped keep some patients cool.
Although at first, the water levels in the streets began to slowly drain away, adding fodder to the notion that “the hospital seemed to have weathered one more storm,” as Fink put it, Hurricane Katrina would soon prove itself to be a deadly outlier, especially after the city's levee broke later that day.
By Tuesday morning, water was gushing from the sewers onto the streets, prompting hospital staff to decide an evacuation, a scenario they desperately hoped to avoid, was necessary. As such, they began discussing the order in which patients should be removed from the hospital. “The doctors quickly agreed that babies in the neonatal intensive-care unit, pregnant mothers and critically ill adult I.C.U. patients would be at great risk from the heat and should get first priority,” Fink explained. Yet amid these discussions, Richard Deichmann, Memorial's medical-department chairman, made a suggestion, one that strayed from the hospital's emergency protocols, suggesting “that all patients with Do Not Resuscitate orders should go last.” According to Fink, Deichmann says he based his decision on the fact that he believed these patients were suffering from incurable or terminal diseases and had the “least to lose."
For those of you who aren't medical professionals – or, well, didn't spend the entirety of quarantine binging all of Grey's Anatomy – a Do Not Resuscitate [DNR] order, is generally created before an emergency situation and essentially allows a patient to opt-out of CPR or revival efforts if either they stop breathing or their heart stops beating. “A do-not-resuscitate order, or DNR order, is a medical order written by a doctor,” according to a resource from the U.S. National Library of Medicine. “It instructs health care providers not to do cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if a patient's breathing stops or if the patient's heart stops beating.”
Yet as Fink notes in her article, a DNR is vastly different from a Living Will. In the state of Louisiana, a Living Will allows patients to outline what medical procedures they would and would not want if they ever find themselves in a situation in which they are suffering from a terminal or incurable ailment and are unable to make their own medical decisions.
While over the next several days, the majority of the people within the hospital were evacuated from the premises via boat and helicopter, the nightmarish situation grew even worse when in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the hospital's generator sputtered to a stop, a sudden silence one doctor described as the “sickest sound” that had ever graced his ears. Despite the efforts of hospital staff hand-ventilating some patients who could not breathe on their own, several died.
In order to help expedite the process of evacuating the approximately 100 remaining patients within the hospital, staffers categorized them on a numbered system. “Those who were in fairly good health and could sit up or walk would be categorized ‘1’s’ and prioritized first for evacuation,” Fink wrote of the organization, unofficially led by Pou. “Those who were sicker and would need more assistance were ‘2’s.’ A final group of patients were assigned ‘3’s’ and were slated to be evacuated last. That group included those whom doctors judged to be very ill and also, as doctors agreed the day before, those with D.N.R. orders.”
While many of the 1's were evacuated by boat, with several of the 2's waiting near the helipad, the 3's were taken to another area on the second floor of the hospital, where Memorial's lack of power and running water led to a very limited scope of care, primarily consisting of changing patients' diapers, fanning them with cardboard, and offering them water if they were able to drink. These limitations also meant that the use of IVs and oxygen were “limited," according to Fink.
It was around this point, the reporter said in an interview with NPR, doctors began considering euthanizing patients. “At some point on the day that the power failed, a few hours after that, some of the doctors told me that they walked around the hospital, had a look at the situation of the patients and felt that hastening death was the right choice,” Fink recalled of her work back in 2013. “You know, one of them had gone upstairs to the intensive care unit where there was just one patient left. Most of them had been taken out first, but she was very, very sick. She had this do not resuscitate order and had been held back. And he asked the nurse, 'Give her enough morphine till she goes.'”
With a new mandate from the hospital CEO on Thursday demanding that everyone evacuate the premises by nightfall, an already overly complicated situation grew dire. The possibility of euthanizing patients became a reality. At this point, Dr. Ewing Cook, who was one of the hospital's “most senior” physicians began teaching Pou how to give patients a combination of morphine and a benzodiazepine sedative, which he told the reporter would help them “go to sleep and die," as the aforementioned drugs “cuts down your respiration so you gradually stop breathing and go out.”
“He said that he viewed it as a way to ease the patients out of a terrible situation,” Fink recalled of her discussion. Others, including Pou, deny this, claiming that they were only attempting to minimize patient suffering. Ultimately, nurses began carrying syringes and drugs down to the number 3 patients on the second floor, according to Fink. Doctors and nurses reportedly began talking about the dosages, allegedly aiming to ensure the patients would pass before the staff left the hospital.
Ten days later, 45 corpses were found in what was essentially a makeshift morgue in Memorial's chapel, “more than from any comparable-size hospital in the drowned city,” Fink noted. Out of these 45, 23 bodies had tested positive for either one or both of the aforementioned substances. A year later, Pou along with two other nurses were arrested, facing accusations of killing four patients with a combination of sedatives, however, the cases against all three were ultimately dropped.
"This is not a triumph, but a moment of remembrance for those who lost their lives during the storm," Pou explained in a statement after a grand jury refused to indict her in 2007. "We need to remember the magnitude of human suffering that occurred in the city of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina so that we can ensure that this never happens again -- and that no health care professional should ever go through this again."