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Suspicious Deaths at Our Veteran’s Hospitals

The press reported on suspicious deaths at VA medical centers. What's going on?

The press has reported on suspicious deaths by healthcare professionals at VA medical centers in West Virginia, Arkansas, Long Island, Bedford Mass, Mississippi, and Missouri. What’s going on?

Physicians overprescribing opioids; nurses suspected of poisoning their charges; a pathologist so impaired he was providing inaccurate readings, resulting in patient deaths. These headlines are quite disconcerting to veterans and their families, as well as the general public.

These events are not unique to the VA and in fact, have been reported throughout the world. With a hospital system the size of 150 medical centers, one really horrific event at a particular medical center can harm the reputation of the entire system.

The overwhelming majority of VA employees are honest, hardworking, dedicated professionals; many are veterans themselves who, at times, overcome insurmountable odds to provide the best treatments they possibly can. In a workplace where everyone takes an oath to save lives, it’s difficult to fathom that someone is intentionally taking lives. However, these stories detailed by the press are not without merit.

I know because I served as the Special Agent in Charge of the VA Office of Inspector General for the Northeast and co-authored the book Behind the Murder Curtain: Special Agent Bruce Sackman Hunts Doctors and Nurses that Kill Our Veterans.

My first case involved a physician, Dr. Michael Swango, who worked at the VA Medical Center in Long Island. His checkered past included spending time in prison for poisoning his coworkers. It seems impossible to believe that a person with those credentials could be employed to treat our nation’s heroes, but that is exactly what happened. He was eventually convicted of murdering three patients using a paralytic. He had traveled throughout the US and Africa and was suspected of killing as many as sixty of his patients. He enjoyed having the power of life and death over individuals. Even more than being a physician, he loved responding to scenes of the worse accidents imaginable as an EMT and kept a scrapbook of death.

The next case took me to Bedford Massachusetts where a nurse named Kristen Gilbert murdered her patients by putting them into code, using the drug epinephrine. She craved the excitement of code and loved that the staff thought she was a skilled nurse trying her best to save patients. Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSP) is a psychological disorder whereby a caregiver intentionally harms a patient to bring attention to themselves as a competent and caring caregiver. Ms. Gilbert appeared to fit this diagnosis. She was found guilty of murdering three patients but was suspected of killing many more.

Next, there was a nurse in a VA medical center in Missouri who was indicted for killing 13 patients he put into codes, but the charges were later dismissed because the toxicology proved unreliable. Then there was a physician in Albany who altered medical records to place patients into investigational research studies who did not meet the inclusion/exclusion criteria necessary to take these drugs. A number of patients expired as a result. He pled guilty in Federal Court. His motive was financial; that is to become the manager of a larger and more prestigious research center, requiring more eligible patients, with of course larger monetary compensation.

Please don’t think these cases are unique to the VA. In fact, recent cases have been reported in Japan, Canada, and a particularly gruesome case of a nurse in Germany recently convicted of murdering more than 100 of his patients. In these cases, it appeared that MSP was most probably the psychological condition displayed.

The most recent case has surfaced at a VA medical center in West Virginia. The press reports that a nurse’s aid is suspected of murdering 11 patients by injecting them with insulin when there was no medical reason to do so. Nothing so far has been reported about the motivation of this employee. Was this employee just tired of dealing with annoying patients like the nurse in Italy who took selfies of herself and the victims after she allegedly murdered them? Was it MSP? Did she have a fascination with the power of life and death like Dr. Swango, or is it yet another reason we have yet to uncover. Time will tell.

How do we prevent these horrors from occurring? Enhanced medical credentialing, tracking suspicious death rates by ward and employee, training staff to look for the red flags prevalent in many of these cases, and providing medical centers with immunity from lawsuits when reporting suspicions to other hospitals would all help. Medical Serial Killer Nurse Charles Cullen worked at several hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania that suspected his activities but never reported to either government officials or the next hospital he moved on to.

The problem of medical serial murders has become so discussed that the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City is holding the first-ever international conference on this topic on March 20, 2020. Click here for more information.