When does medical malpractice cross the line into murder? A jury in Ohio will grapple with that question in the case of William Husel, a doctor with the Mount Carmel Health System. Husel is accused of intentionally killing 25 patients with high doses of fentanyl, an opioid pain killer, and other drugs.
Mount Carmel and Trinity Health, its Michigan-based parent company, said internal investigations found that Husel ordered “excessive and potentially fatal” doses of fentanyl and other medicines in two dozen cases involving patients “at or near death.” Husel maintains that he was providing “comfort care” to patients with no chance of survival. However, the attorneys at our law firm are representing the family of Drake Mills, a patient who died after Husel administered lethal drugs, in a wrongful death lawsuit. Attorney Scott Perlmuter says Mills did have a chance of survival, however small—until Husel gave him a lethal dose of fentanyl.
The best-case scenario is that doctors like Husel committed medical malpractice by ordering high doses of drugs that any doctor should recognize as potentially fatal. In the worst-case scenario, doctors like Husel could be intentionally killing people. Although it sounds far-fetched, these cases are not uncommon: in 2000, another Ohio doctor, Michael Swango, pled guilty to aggravated murder in the 1984 death of 19-year-old Cynthia Ann McGee. McGee had been hospitalized at the Fisher-Titus Medical Center in Norwalk, Ohio, for nearly two months following a car accident. However, she only lapsed into a coma and died after Swango visited her room on January 14, 1984. A nurse reported that she witnessed Swango enter McGee’s room with a syringe that day but her report fell on deaf ears. Instead, the driver of the car that injured McGee, 17-year-old Scott Bone, was charged with reckless homicide.
After McGee’s death and Bone’s conviction, hospital administrators discovered that Swango had been lying about his past. Wherever Swango went, mysterious illnesses plagued his patients and colleagues. Hospital workers who noticed his suspicious behavior complained to administrators, but no one believed them—at first.
“Swango got a surgical internship at Ohio State University Medical Center in 1983, to be followed by a residency in neurosurgery. While he worked at the Rhodes Hall wing, nurses began noticing that apparently healthy patients began dying mysteriously with alarming frequency,” one profile of Swango says. “Each time, Swango had been the floor intern. One nurse caught him injecting some ‘medicine’ into a patient who later became strangely ill. The nurses reported their concerns to administrators, but were met with accusations of paranoia.”
In 1985, Swango was convicted of aggravated battery for attempting to poison his co-workers. He served four years in prison. After his release, Swango attempted to change his name, forged letters and documents, and lied about his record—allowing him to secure more jobs working with patients in the U.S. and Zimbabwe. By the time he finally pled guilty to killing Cynthia McGee by injecting her with potassium, he was a suspect in more than 60 deaths.
Even when medical malpractice is just malpractice, a doctor’s negligence often has devastating consequences for the patient. But some of these doctors have proven to be more than negligent. If a string of suspicious deaths is linked to a doctor or other health care worker, the people who care about the well-being of patients—namely nurses, administrators, and family members—should consider the possibility that something more sinister is at play.