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Mo. police take another look at patient deaths

March 25, 2012 GMT

CHILLICOTHE, Mo. (AP) — A northern Missouri prosecutor has asked police to conduct another investigation into claims in several lawsuits that a respiratory therapist caused the deaths of at least seven patients using the wrong dose of medication.

Adam Warren, Livingston County’s prosecuting attorney, said he didn’t think that — based on the information from the coroner, who noted nine suspicious deaths, and the civil suits — “a thorough investigation has ever been completed.”

The St. Joseph News-Press (http://bit.ly/GPrKPy) reported that previous prosecutors determined there wasn’t enough evidence to file charges in the deaths that occurred in 2002 at Hedrick Medical Center in Chillicothe.

The hospital, the therapist and their attorneys have strongly and repeatedly denied the allegations.

Eight civil lawsuits were filed in Livingston County Circuit Court from 2008 to 2012 on behalf of the families of seven patients who died and an eighth patient who had to be resuscitated, according to the newspaper. The suits allege that patients were purposefully injected with drugs, such as a fast-acting muscle relaxant called succinylcholine, which is said to be hard to detect.

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None of the cases has gone to trial or been settled. Details about the patients’ medical conditions, or why they may have been treated with the medication, weren’t revealed.

“The only rational conclusion that you have from that is that it’s a non-event,” said Matt O’Connor, an attorney for the respiratory therapist, who worked at the hospital about four months.

The lawsuits name the respiratory therapist, but The Associated Press is withholding her name because of the lack of criminal charges.

Tom Wagstaff, an attorney for the hospital, said Hedrick Medical Center approached law enforcement in 2002 about “some events” occurring at the hospital. At that time, he said, the hospital turned over information to the authorities, but he offered no specifics.

“The authorities have handled it since then,” Wagstaff said. “No one’s been able to prove anything. No charges have ever been filed against anybody.”

Scott Lindley, the Livingston County coroner and key witness in the plaintiffs’ case, said in a sworn affidavit that tests found trace amounts of succinylcholine in one of the patient’s kidneys. Lindley said he had the test results sent to Dr. Michael Baden, a New York-based pathologist, who ruled the patient’s cause of death was homicide by “acute succinylcholine poisoning.”

“My investigation revealed 17 suspicious ‘code blues’ and eight suspicious deaths of patients at Hedrick Medical Center during the period of Feb. 3, 2002 through May 5, 2002,” followed by another suspicious death later that month, Lindley he said in his affidavit.

But Dr. Christopher Long, director of toxicology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, said succinylcholine poisoning is almost impossible to prove. The medical examiner said when administered, the manufactured drug almost immediately breaks down in the body into succinic acid and choline — two chemicals produced naturally by the body.

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Lindley became involved in the case in 2002, when a doctor noticed an increase in patient deaths related to cardiac arrests and requested post-mortem examinations.

“This is a very difficult case,” he said when asked why he considers the deaths “homicides,” when no criminal charges have been filed against the respiratory therapist.

Livingston County Sheriff Steve Cox said that in late 2004 Lindley briefed members of the Chillicothe Police Department, Missouri State Highway Patrol, Missouri Attorney General’s office and the Livingston County Prosecuting Attorney’s office on evidence he collected. The same group met twice again in the following years.

Each time, Cox said, the group came to an agreement that they did not have ample information to launch a homicide investigation.

The lawsuits were filed by the families of deceased patients Charles O’Hara, Shirley R. Eller, David Harper, Coval H. Gann, Clarence B. Warner, Fern A. Franco and Irwin Rounkles Jr. A suit also has been filed on behalf of Sarah Lynn Romeiser who is still living.

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Information from: St. Joseph News-Press, http://www.stjoenews-press.com