Virginia health officials yesterday suspended the license of a nurse who allegedly told investigators she administered overdoses of morphine to two terminally ill patients at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital to hasten their deaths.
Fairfax County homicide detectives said they were investigating the case of Rhea E. Henson, of Fairfax, a registered nurse who cared for the two men when she was assigned to the hospital's critical care unit in June.
Both patients died. Police and hospital officials declined to identify the men, but sources said one was Azim Mohammed, 50, who died at Inova Fair Oaks on June 24.
Henson declined to comment last night. Her attorney, Dale Race, said his client's position is that "she is not guilty of anything either in law or fact. And we will just let [the situation] play out, when and if she's charged with any wrongdoing."
The state Board of Nursing issued an emergency order declaring Henson a "substantial" danger to the public and suspending her license immediately. She will not be able to work in Virginia at least until a hearing on Sept. 27.
In its order, the board said that sometime on her overnight shift beginning at 7 p.m. June 29, "by her own admission, Ms. Henson administered an inappropriate dose of morphine to Patient A in order to hasten his death."
When the overdose didn't work as she expected, Henson told investigators, she tried to cover up what she had done by filling up the patient's IV bag with saline solution to replace the morphine she had earlier injected all at once, the board said in its order.
According to the nursing board, Henson also admitted that on a different unspecified day in June she gave another patient a morphine overdose in order to hasten his death. Sources yesterday said tests at the Virginia State Forensics Laboratory in Fairfax indicate that patient had excessive morphine levels in his body at the time of his death.
Race said he could not respond to the allegation that Henson admitted to giving the overdoses because he had not yet heard from the state nursing board. "Nothing has come into this office that would suggest she has admitted anything," he said.
He said Henson, who is in her late forties, holds an "exemplary" nursing record with "years and years of dedicated service."
Henson was a contract worker at Inova Fair Oaks for two years, and before that she worked for a local nursing agency, Race said. She is an employee of Progressive Nursing Staffing Inc. of Fairfax County. Company officials said yesterday that they would not comment about the nurse or her employment record.
Officials said they knew of no other alleged cases of "improper medication administration" by Henson. It is unknown whether Henson worked at other hospitals in the area or cared for similar patients.
"In cooperation with the hospital, police have thus far identified only two possible cases," said Lt. Amy Lubas, a Fairfax police spokeswoman.
Although both men at Inova Fair Oaks died after being in Henson's care, no official has said that Henson directly caused their deaths. And proving anything beyond an attempt would be complicated by the fact that both patients were dying anyway.
Morphine, a powerful and addictive narcotic, typically is used to relieve intense pain experienced by cancer patients whose disease has spread into their bones and throughout their bodies. A fatal overdose causes the respiratory system to slow down until it simply stops and the patient dies of hypoxia, a lack of oxygen.
Records indicate that Mohammed's body was shipped for burial in a family plot in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. Officials at the Trinidad and Tobago Embassy in Washington said the cause of Mohammed's death was listed on government documents as "cardiopulmonary arrest due to or as a consequence of brain hemorrhage."
Trinidadian officials said that neither they nor Mohammed's brother in Virginia have been approached by investigators about an exhumation of Mohammed's body.
Hospital officials said they could give few details about the matter because of the ongoing police investigation.
"I want to assure you that we verify the credentials of all nurses and other licensed health care professionals," Inova Fair Oaks Administrator William A. Brown said at a news conference. "We have strict processes in place for monitoring and dispensing all medications."
Inova Fair Oaks, like many other hospitals, relies on temporary nurses to round out its staff in busier times. "Hospitals typically, in order to respond to fluctuating [patient] volumes, use supplementary staffing," Brown said.
Henson has held a Virginia license as a registered nurse since 1987.
In Richmond, officials at the Board of Nursing spent much of the afternoon scrambling to gather the telephone votes of scattered board members to adopt an emergency suspension of Henson's license that prevents her from holding any health care job in Virginia. It isn't known whether she is licensed in the District or Maryland.
Allegations of mercy killings by hospital staff members have grown increasingly common in recent years. In Glendale, Calif., police are probing the claims of respiratory therapist Efren Saldivar that he killed dozens of terminally ill patients. Saldivar later recanted, and no criminal charges have been filed.
Kristen Gilbert, a former nurse at a Springfield, Mass., Veterans Affairs hospital, was indicted in the deaths of three patients and the attempted slayings of two others. Prosecutors said she administered epinephrine, a stimulant that speeds the heart rate, to all five victims. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
One of the biggest cases involves Orville Lynn Majors, a Newport, Ind., nurse who was charged with killing seven patients with injections. His trial is to begin in September.
Staff writers Jacqueline L. Salmon and Leef Smith contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Inova Fair Oaks Administrator William A. Brown and Fairfax police spokeswoman Amy Lubas at a news conference on the investigation of two patients' deaths.