Nurse Charles Cullen worked at nine hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, killing dozens of patients by spiking saline IV bags with deadly doses of drugs physicians did not order and patients did not need.
Donald Harvey, who worked as an orderly among other hospital jobs, roamed units at three hospitals in Cincinnati and Kentucky where he killed more than two dozen patients.
The health care killers used insulin, heart drugs or poisons such as cyanide. They had access to frail patients on hospital floors. Ultimately, they were convicted of murdering patients under their care.
As investigators assemble clues in at least two homicides and at least eight other suspicious deaths at a Clarksburg, West Virginia, Veterans Affairs hospital, past examples of health care workers who killed patients with unneeded medications — including insulin, the drug suspected in the VA deaths — show how difficult such cases can be to detect and prove.
Cullen moved from hospital to hospital, taking new jobs when managers began to suspect his deadly ways. Although investigators collected forensic evidence implicating him, prosecutors did not charge him until a fellow nurse, wearing a wire, coaxed a confession.
Harvey’s arrest was a matter of luck. He used cyanide to poison a man hospitalized after a motorcycle crash, unwittingly triggering an Ohio law requiring autopsies on all motorcycle fatalities. The medical examiner who performed the autopsy had a genetic ability to smell cyanide, which triggered the investigation.
There are no formal statistics tracking the number of health care workers convicted of murdering patients. Such cases are distinct from medical errors in which doctors, nurses or other clinicians inadvertently harm or even kill patients through carelessness or mistakes.
These serial killers are often called “angels of death,” but those familiar with their behavior say the moniker rarely describes their crimes. More often, they kill with intent and out of compulsion, not compassion.
Elizabeth Yardley, a criminology professor at Birmingham City University in England, studies nurses who kill. In a 2014 research paper, she identified 16 convicted of murder over the past four decades in the United States, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom.
Insulin was the drug most frequently used to poison patients. But health care killers also used sedatives, muscle relaxers, blood thinners, heart drugs and even bleach. Some started with one drug and moved to another as the pace of their killings increased.
In most cases, the killers poisoned patients with drugs taken from the hospital where they worked. Some nurses had legitimate access to the medicines. Others stole the drugs, bypassing safeguards to secure medication.
“This is the challenge of investigating homicide in a health care setting — the suspects you are looking at are members of a staff,” Yardley said. “Those members have legitimate access to victims. They have the opportunity to harm them.
“It can be an investigative nightmare.”
‘You can’t prove anything’
Cullen’s string of suspicious deaths began in the late 1980s, after he landed his first nursing job through a staffing agency at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, New Jersey.
As recounted in the book “The Good Nurse” by journalist Charles Graeber, Saint Barnabas nurses in February 1991 noticed two patients in the hospital’s critical care unit mysteriously crashing from low blood sugar levels. The patients appeared to get better as soon as they were disconnected from an IV bag.
Hospital security staff discovered the IV bags contained insulin, which wasn’t ordered by doctors. Investigators found small needle marks on the perimeter of the bags. A review of records uncovered reports of several patients unexpectedly crashing from hypoglycemia.
Making the case for foul play was not easy. The patients had a range of health conditions that made them vulnerable, and completing a complex medical investigation proved difficult. Hospital security installed cameras in the medical storage room and the administration tightened requirements for staff accessing insulin.
Cullen was interviewed about the tampered IV bags but he was defiant. According to “The Good Nurse” he told security, “You can’t prove anything.”
Cullen was right. Though the hospital suspected him, it lacked evidence to prove he sabotaged IV bags by injecting insulin, “sending them out like grenades” to vulnerable patients, as Graeber wrote. And when security informed the local police department, the department’s chief had little interest in taking on the case.
Saint Barnabas moved Cullen off the work schedule. He easily found another nursing job, a pattern that continued over the next decade and a half at hospital after hospital.
The hospitals did not collect meaningful evidence. They did not publicly report “sentinel events” — unexpected incidents involving death or serious injury — even though they were required to under federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid rules for all participating hospitals.
“He was caught over and over again, or at least suspected strongly enough that he was removed from the hospital,” Graeber said. “What happened time and time again is he was moved on with neutral or positive references.”
Cullen’s actions finally caught up to him at New Jersey’s Somerset Medical Center, after four people died from non-prescribed doses of insulin and the heart drug digoxin. He was suspected, but the hospital wanted to conduct its own probe before notifying outside investigators.
More patients died before Somerset administrators, under pressure from the director of the state’s poison control center, finally went to police. Detectives, however, could not gather enough forensic evidence to seal the investigation. They convinced a nurse who was friendly with Cullen to wear a recording device. During a conversation, Cullen told her he wanted to “go down fighting.”
He confessed, pleaded guilty to killing 13 patients at Somerset and agreed to cooperate with authorities in lieu of the death penalty. He was sentenced to life in prison. It’s unknown how many people he killed during his nearly two decades of nursing. Cullen told detectives he killed as many as 40, but Graeber’s research put the likely death toll at about 400.
Before he was arrested, Cullen knew Somerset suspected him in the string of deaths. He was preparing to move on to another hospital like he had so many times before.
“Cullen had another job lined up,” Graeber said. “It really did take a confession to be able to put him away. Everything else was circumstantial, difficult to prove.”
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Source: USA Today