“First, Do No Harm,” Applies To RNs Too!

April 20th, 2012


By , BSN, RN 

What makes nurses kill? This is a question that has been on my mind a lot lately. The news for the past six weeks or so has been filled with death surrounding nurses and nursing students. In some cases being a nurse was absolutely integral to the murders committed. In other cases, I think the accused just happened to be a nurse and the sad, unfolding drama might have happened anyway. But still, in each case, it was a nurse or nursing student who was involved.

  • The most recent newsworthy nurse involved in a murder is right here in my hometown. The story has made the national news daily since it happened. Verna McClain is accused of killing a young mother in order to take the woman’s newborn son. The child was found later unharmed. McClain is charged with capital murder is being held without bond.

    McClain is a vocational nurse with licenses in both California and Texas. She has never faced disciplinary action in either state, according to the licensing boards.

    What we do know is that McClain recently suffered a miscarriage but didn’t tell her fiancée. She, ostensibly, stole the child so that her fiancée would not know about the miscarriage.

    In this case, it seems to me, that it is more about desperation and sadness than about being a nurse. However, in every headline, she is identified as a nurse.

  • A few weeks back, again here in Texas, Kimberly Saenz, a former East Texas nurse was sentenced to life in prison. She was recently found guilty of killing five kidney dialysis patients by injecting them with bleach. Saenz was fired in April 2008 after a rash of illnesses and deaths at the clinic in Lufkin, about 125 miles northeast of Houston.

    Saenz did not take the stand during her trial but District Attorney Clyde Herrington suggested she was a troubled woman with marital problems who lashed out due to job dissatisfaction. Saenz had previously been fired from Woodland Heights Medical Center for stealing Demerol, a powerful narcotic painkiller.

    “From talking to some of the folks who worked with her, it sounded like her husband didn’t want her to quit,” Herrington said. “She was depressed. She was frustrated, and I think she took those frustrations out on the patients.”

  • On Monday, April 2, 2012 a gunman opened fire and killed seven people at Oikos University in Oakland, California. The accused murderer is One L. Goh, a nursing student who got kicked out of the school several months before because of behavioral problems.

    Born in South Korea, Goh felt bullied by the other students because of his poor English skills. He returned to the school to specifically target the school administrator, and when she wasn’t there, he went into a classroom and opened fire on anyone within sight, even shooting one student point-blank in the chest. All the victims, except one, were nursing students.

  • Just so you don’t think this is only a problem in the United States, two male nurses face murder charges in Uruguay after reportedly admitting to killing at least 16 patients in two hospitals in the country's capital. One of the men has been charged with five aggravated homicides, while the other has been charged with 11 aggravated homicides.

    Officials claim the two men appear to have acted independently of each other. According to the authorities, the two male nurses, ages 39 and 46, both said they killed the patients because they did not want to see them suffer.

    The nurses wanted to relieve patients' pain, said one attorney. "It wasn't a vicious operation in the spirit of death," he told reporters. But apparently not all those killed were terminally ill. One patient had their discharge order signed one day before his death, officials revealed.

I wish I understood what all this was about. How do people who commit their education, their time, and their lives to helping others end up in place where they are killing them instead? This is the stuff of psychiatric and psychological studies, of a nursing school thesis, or a true-life crime novel. What bothers me as much as the loss of innocent lives is that these killers and accused killers are like me—nurses.

A study published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences in November 2006 examined 90 cases from 20 countries of criminal prosecutions of nurses between 1970 and 2006. Fifty-four of the defendants were convicted and other convictions were pending. All were accused of killing at least one of their patients. Most had used the injection of lethal substances, suffocation, poisoning, and/or equipment tampering end the lives of their victims.

Nurses, both male and female, account for 86% of healthcare serial killers, and the number of suspicious deaths attributed to the confirmed killers in the study totaled over 2,000.

“The truth is that some people enter healthcare professions not to help others but to gain power, control, or attention. If they decide to harm or kill, victims and methods are readily available,” writes Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., in her blog at Psychology Today. “Until recently, it hasn’t been difficult for determined predators to commit and cover up murder in healthcare institutions. They exploited the atmosphere of trust.”

And, in those words, is the summation of what makes me heartsick about all these cases—the atmosphere of trust. The majority of nurses do the job with the highest regard for being trustworthy. We know that strangers’ lives are in our hands. We know we have the ability, the skills, the power, to make our patients and their families feel better. And, if not feel better, at least we can help them trust that they are getting the best care possible at what may be the lowest point of their lives.

I know the nurses who commit these crimes are but a small percentage within the number of murders in this country and around the world. Even so, when nurses are annually voted the most trusted profession, it amazes me we maintain that distinction when the news is filled with stories of the harm we can cause.

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