Investigator: Nurse overdosed veteran on morphine

Liz De La Torre

From The Associated Press

LEXINGTON, Ky. – A Kentucky nurse accused of killing a veterans hospital patient with an overdose of morphine also cared for two other patients whose deaths were considered suspicious, a federal agent testified Thursday.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Special Agent Rick Ellison testified that 90-year-old Jesse L. Chain died after receiving 75 milligrams of morphine in the 6 1/2 hours before he died in September 2006 at the Lexington VA hospital. Ellison said Chain was only supposed to receive 1 mg an hour.

Ellison also testified that large amounts of morphine were unaccounted for in the cases of two other patients in the care of 32-year-old Maria Kelly Whitt.

Whitt, a nurse from Mount Sterling, has pleaded not guilty to murder in Chain’s death. She appeared Thursday in federal court for a detention hearing that was continued until next Wednesday.

Whitt was dressed in an olive green jumpsuit and she was bound at the hands and feet. Her mother, an uncle and her 14-year-old daughter attended the hearing.

Whitt has not been charged in the deaths of the other two patients who Ellison decribed in Thursday’s testimony. One patient was an 88-year-old man with heart problems whose breathing tube had been removed and he was put on morphine for comfort, Ellison said.

The man was supposed to receive 1 mg of morphine per hour, but 60 milliliters of morphine were unaccounted for, Ellison said.

The other patient was a 60-year-old man who suffered a massive heart attack. Ellison said the man was supposed to receive 1 mg of morphine per hour and that 34 milliliter of morphine were missing.

Chain, a World War II veteran, was admitted to the VA hospital on Aug. 30, 2006. His health problems included chronic heart failure and kidney problems, Ellison said. Chain went to intensive care the day after admission. His family instructed caregivers not to try to resuscitate him.

A doctor advised Chain’s family on Sept. 3, 2006, that they had done all they could and prescribed a morphine drip “to ease him into a comfortable passing,” Ellison said. Whitt started morphine drip on Chain, Ellison said.

After Chain died, Whitt and a co-worker cleaned the room. The co-worker noticed the bottle of morphine was empty, prompting the investigation, Ellison said.

Ellison said Whitt sought to deflect blame in her first interview with investigators, saying the family or another nurse may have overmedicated Chain. Ellison said the Chain family was ruled out as having any role in the deaths.

During an interview with Whitt, the nurse said she gave Chain doses of morphine, Ellison said.

Ellison and Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger West declined comment after the hearing about whether the other two cases remain under investigation.

Whitt’s court-appointed attorney, Robert L. Abell, declined comment after the hearing. Abell said the family is hiring a private attorney and expects to hire someone soon.

“I thought she was doing fine under very difficult circumstances,” Abell said of his client.

U.S. Magistrate Judge James Todd ordered the remainder of the hearing continued to give Whitt’s attorneys an opportunity to review witness statements.

Whitt’s mother, Bonnie Whitt of Mount Sterling, said outside the hearing that she received several calls from her daughter’s co-workers at the VA hospital expressing support for her.

“She loves what she does and that’s taking care of people,” Bonnie Whitt said.

Her uncle, Jimmy Robinson, of Mount sterling, described Maria Whitt as a divorced “hardworking single mother” of a 14-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old girl and said she had a good reputation among co-workers.

“This has been real upsetting to the family,” Robinson said.