A nurse who allegedly administered morphine overdoses to two terminally ill patients at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital in order to hasten their deaths touched off the probe by telling hospital employees about her actions, sources familiar with the investigation said yesterday.
The registered nurse, Rhea E. Henson, of Fairfax County, has not been charged in the death of either patient, but the Virginia Board of Nursing summarily suspended her license Wednesday after determining that she posed "a substantial danger to public health or safety."
The board stated that Henson "by her own admission" administered inappropriate doses of morphine to the two men, both of whom died soon afterward. Fairfax County police have submitted blood samples from both patients to the state crime lab for toxicology testing to determine whether the morphine directly caused the deaths.
One of Henson's attorneys, Demetrios C. Pikrallidas, said Henson had been a victim of "cruel" rumors spread by co-workers who dubbed her "Dr. Kevorkian, Angel of Death."
"When she heard blemishes on her name, she responded immediately to hospital authorities," Pikrallidas said. "She's not an angel of death. She's not an angel of mercy. She's not Jack Kevorkian. She is the consummate professional nurse with 25 years' professional service. She's not a crusader."
A brother of one of the two patients said last night that he would not be angry if tests showed that his brother's death was hastened.
Nazim Mohammed said his brother, Azim Mohammed, 50, a taxi driver in Trinidad, suffered a massive stroke at 9 a.m. on June 24 while visiting him in Nokesville. Two Inova Fair Oaks doctors told Nazim Mohammed the brain damage was so extensive that his brother would never make a full recovery. He died at 11:15 p.m. that day, after the alleged morphine incident.
"Just let him go," Nazim Mohammed said in a telephone interview last night. "It might be better for him."
He said that he met Henson at the hospital and that "she seemed like a real professional person, a real nice person."
When hospital officials began looking into the matter, they initially were uncertain whether the morphine overdoses were given deliberately, a source said. "At the time, they were going through the agony of trying to figure out whether it was done intentionally or in error," said a physician familiar with the case.
Hospital officials said they first learned of the situation the night of June 30. By that time, sources said, Henson allegedly had told several other co-workers at Inova Fair Oaks of her actions.
The co-workers were interviewed by hospital authorities, and then by Fairfax detectives after they joined the probe July 2. Sources said Henson, who was promptly removed from her job, did not cooperate with the police investigation.
The nursing board's suspension order alleges that on a 12-hour shift beginning the night of June 29, "by her own admission, Ms. Henson administered an inappropriate dose of morphine to Patient A in order to hasten his death." Neither hospital officials nor police have released the name of Patient A.
In the second alleged incident, a man described as "Patient B" by the nursing board--which, based on the date of his death, would be Mohammed--also received morphine from Henson. After Mohammed died, his body was shipped for burial to Trinidad and Tobago.
Investigators said they have no evidence of any other questionable deaths in the case.
Henson was a contract nurse employed by Progressive Nursing Staffers of Springfield, which assigned her to Inova Fair Oaks for the past two years. Her attorneys described her as an experienced nurse in her late forties. She has been licensed in Virginia since 1987 and does not hold licenses in Maryland or the District.
Morphine, a narcotic painkiller used to ease intense pain for the terminally ill, has varying effects on people, based on their previous morphine use and other factors. Experts say that giving terminally ill patients morphine in an attempt to kill them may actually prolong the dying process.
"When you're in a lot of pain, your breathing and heart rate are fast, and you could just tire out," said Christina Puchalski, a George Washington University assistant professor of medicine specializing in geriatrics and end-of-life care. "If you control pain, breathing is more efficient, the heart rate and blood circulation are more normal."
According to the Board of Nursing, that may be what happened to Patient A. By the end of Henson's shift, the patient was not dead, and the nurse allegedly tried to cover up the fact that the morphine, which was supposed to be given in a slow drip, was all gone, the board said.