Cases of patients being killed by health-care workers may be shocking but aren’t unusual

October 2016 Nationalpost; Some claimed they did it for the good of their patients, others created scenarios where they could try to heroically save a life, and some just seemed to enjoy the power to inflict sudden death.

The multiple murder charges laid against a Woodstock, Ont., nurse Tuesday may have shocked many Canadians, but the case was hardly unique.

Across North America and Europe, dozens of nurses and other health-care workers have been accused of deliberately killing patients, usually with medications meant to make their charges better.

By one academic’s estimate, health-care criminals have been convicted of killing at least 328 people, while close to another 2,000 suspicious deaths have been linked less definitively to those medical murderers.

“It’s relatively rare in terms of murder and serial murder,” David Wilson, a criminology professor at Birmingham City University in Britain, said Tuesday. “(But) it’s just that it’s so shocking, because clearly these are people to whom we entrust our families, our loved ones.”

Many have noticeable personality or psychiatric problems that are missed because health-care administrators desperate for more nurses often fail to check references, he said.

Employers too often have simply fired workers with troubling patient-death records rather than warning other institutions, said Beatrice Yorker, a California State University nursing professor.

The victims are predominately elderly and very sick – people whose deaths are not necessarily considered a shock — though several infants have also been killed.

One of the most recent perpetrators was Kimberly Saenz, convicted in 2012 of murdering five patients in a Lufkin, Tex., clinic by injecting bleach into their dialysis lines.

Another notorious nurse killer, Charles Cullen, was found guilty in 2004 of killing 29 patients in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

However, he admitted to taking another 10 or so lives, and is suspected in as many as another 300 deaths, making him one of America’s most prolific serial killers ever.

Beverley Allitt, a British nurse, was convicted of murdering four children and attempting to murder three others at a hospital in Lincolnshire.

Academics who have studied the unsettling phenomenon say some common themes have emerged.

Several of the killers claimed to be “angels of death,” easing the suffering of patients by prematurely ending their lives, though researchers say those assertions often appear dubious.

Many seem to enjoy the attention that comes with the demise of patents they tend to, a version possibly of Munchausen-by-proxy, a condition where caregivers harm someone as a way of getting medical attention.

Some nurses, appearing to be deeply affected by the deaths they perpetrated, have even received flowers from the patients’ loved ones, said Wilson.

Richard Angelo, a nurse convicted of killing 10 patients in New York in the 1980s, said he injected drugs that gave them cardiac arrests because he liked being treated as a hero when he tried, often unsuccessfully, to revive them.

Yorker’s 2006 study identified 54 medical serial killers in Europe and North America in 1970-2006.

In most cases, the murder weapon was a drug the health-care professional could easily access. That included potassium chloride, an electrolyte that in high doses can cause the heart to stop, insulin, morphine and drugs that paralyze the respiratory system.

Because of many of the drugs are designed to let patients be comfortably attached to artificial breathing machines, they can be fatal if there is no device to take over respiration, said Yorker.

“Most of it involves IV medication, because you don’t even need to poke a needle into the skin of the patient,” she said. “You can just put a few little drops of additional medication into the IV line, and it’s almost just too easy.”

In fact, Yorker said the health-care killer phenomenon appears to have petered out in the United States. She attributes the change to the advent of computerized systems that highlight unusual drug use by staff in a health-care facility.

Wilson’s 2014 study of 16 nurses who committed murders in hospitals, specifically, singled out other red flags. Most common were a history of depression or other psychological troubles, a high incidence of death on the killers’ shifts, making colleagues feel uneasy around them, and having drugs in their lockers or homes.

In some cases, problems would have been picked up if employers had carefully checked references for nurses who often switched jobs, said the British criminologist.

“If someone is moving every nine months or every 12 months, you’ve really got to ask yourself, ‘Why didn’t they make it in this city?” said Wilson.

“Why are they moving, why are they finding it difficult to stay and hold down a job?”

 

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