- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2003

Montgomery County [Md.] police are investigating whether a nurse has hastened the deaths of patients in the intensive care unit at Rockville’s Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, a facility with a history of patient care mishaps.

The nurse was identified by the Associated Press yesterday as Coleen M. Thompson.

The state board suspended her nursing license, and the hospital sent her home with pay.

Shady Grove’s accreditation was downgraded to conditional in 1999 in the wake of a series of newspaper reports about the death of a patient in intensive care who had been left in a hallway on a gurney, an operation on a wrong hip and other medical mistakes. Several senior managers either resigned or retired shortly afterward, and the hospital resumed full accreditation in 2001.

Officials said yesterday the latest investigation would cover more than one patient death.

Another nurse in the 26-bed ICU told hospital administrators July 9 that a colleague had killed a critically ill patient.

By the next day, an internal hospital investigation found that the tip was credible, and Miss Thompson was suspended. The hospital described the lethal medical intervention as “unauthorized, inappropriate and unilateral action,” and the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office was informed of the situation.

The Maryland Board of Nursing, issuing an emergency suspension order yesterday, said Miss Thompson let a female patient die without doing anything to intervene, despite the patient’s fluctuating and dangerously low blood pressure.

The patient died of heart failure early on July 6 after being in Miss Thompson’s care for six hours, the order said.

“The board did what it needed to do based on the information we had,” said Donna Dorsey, head of the board. “It was egregious.”

Miss Thompson’s attorney, Thomas O’Malley, said his client did nothing wrong.

He said the nurse was one of many medical staff members who treated patients in the cases under investigation, and she wasn’t trying to hide anything.

Nurses who deliberately end the lives of patients in their care typically fall into two categories: “angels of mercy,” who kill terminally ill patients out of compassion, and “angels of death” who kill out of spite.

Medical workers have been involved in at least 24 cases of these “angel killings” in the United States in the last quarter-century. Also, several “hospital epidemics” have shown spikes in hospital deaths that are not from natural causes.

Last year, a federal court in Boston sentenced nurse Kristen Gilbert, 33, to death by lethal injection for killing four patients.

In Fairfax County three years ago, nurse Rhea R. Henson admitted giving a morphine overdose to heart-attack patient in a coma at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital. Miss Henson, who was 50 years old at the time, pleaded guilty to acting as an “angel of mercy” when she illegally administered the drug and promised never again to practice nursing. She could have received 10 years in jail, but was sentenced to two years with the entire term suspended.

Police and hospital officials cautioned against describing the incidents at Shady Grove as “mercy killings.”

“I don’t think anybody should leap to any conclusions,” said hospital spokesman Robert Jepson.

The family of Richard T. Feller, 84, had agreed to take him off life support but was told by the hospital yesterday that the nurse might have hastened his death.

Mr. Feller, an engineer who supervised construction at Washington National Cathedral, had a living will and had been seriously ill for some time when he fell into a coma at the hospital. His son, Dick Feller, said that he opened his eyes and said, “Thank you,” when they removed life support.

Dick Feller said his father was prepared to die April 6 when they removed life support. Any actions by the nurse would have made a difference of only a few hours, he said.

“If a nurse at the hospital hastened his departure, I’m kind of sad that someone would do that,” Dick Feller said by telephone from his home in Eau Claire, Wis. “The end result is still the same, and our family is at peace with what happened.”

Montgomery County Assistant Police Chief John King said the investigation would be lengthy and that Miss Thompson had not been charged with any crime.

Neither police nor hospital officials have named Miss Thompson as a suspect. Her identity surfaced when the state nursing board acted yesterday.

Montgomery County Police began an around-the-clock investigation July 10 into the Shady Grove hospital deaths.

Police spokeswoman Lucille Baur said the investigation will involve consultations with medical professionals to determine what actions would be inappropriate in caring for critically ill patients in various circumstances.

Hospital officials have been meeting with relatives of patients who may be involved in the case.

Current or former patients and their families may call a special information hot line set up by the hospital at 800/296-6071.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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