At least two more patients died under suspicious circumstances while they were under the care of nurse Maria K. Whitt at Lexington's Veterans Affairs Medical Center, an official testified Thursday.
The testimony came during a detention hearing for Whitt, who was indicted by a federal grand jury Oct. 2 in the September 2006 death of Jesse Lee Chain, 90, at the VA hospital off Cooper Drive. Whitt is accused of killing the World War II veteran with lethal levels of morphine.
When asked by Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger W. West whether there were more questionable deaths, Rick Ellison, a special agent with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Inspector General, said there were.
"How many, sir?" West asked.
"Two. At least two," Ellison said.
The special agent, who is based in Nashville, said one was an 88-year-old man with heart problems, the other a 60-year-old man who had had a massive heart attack. Both died after they were given morphine.
Whitt, 32, of Mount Sterling was arrested Tuesday and taken to the Grayson County Detention Center. The indictment was unsealed Wednesday.
Ellison testified that Chain, who had a history of chronic heart failure, kidney problems and other ailments, was taken to the VA hospital Aug. 30, 2006, and transferred to the hospital's intensive care unit the next day. On Sept. 3, after a doctor told his family he thought Chain was dying, they agreed that Chain should be administered an intravenous morphine drip to keep him comfortable. Chain had requested a do-not-resuscitate — or DNR — order.
The drip was started at 10:01 a.m., and after several extra doses of morphine, Chain died at 4:33 p.m., Ellison said.
Whitt and a co-worker went into Chain's room. The 100-milliliter container used for the drip was empty. The co-worker asked Whitt, 'What do you want to do about this?" Ellison said.
"And at that point everything stopped, and the hospital administration was notified and the VA police were notified. The room was sealed off. Eventually, Lexington police were notified. The coroner came over, and the investigation started," the special agent said.
Whitt at first wanted to place blame on Chain's family, saying they were acting suspiciously while at the hospital the day he died, Ellison said.
"They've been accusing me of his murder," said Tammy Mealing of Maysville, Chain's stepdaughter, later in the day Thursday. "The FBI was here a couple of times. They interrogated me and tried to make me say I did it and not to ruin the VA hospital's reputation."
Mealing said she never worried too much because she knew she had not killed her stepfather.
Whitt, in initial interviews with authorities, also suggested that another nurse might be to blame in Chain's death, Ellison said in court.
Eventually, it was determined that Chain's family had nothing to do with the death, and Whitt admitted that she had administered all of the extra doses, Ellison said.
The indictment says Whitt "willfully, deliberately, maliciously and with premeditation and malice aforethought" injected Chain with "lethal levels of morphine," killing him.
If found guilty, she could be sentenced to life in prison and fined $250,000, and face the possibility of five years' supervised release, according to the indictment.
Robert Abell represented Whitt at Thursday's hearing, but another, permanent attorney is expected to represent her in the case. That attorney is expected to be Patrick Nash.
Whitt was suspended Wednesday from her nursing job at St. Joseph-Mount Sterling hospital, where she had worked since February. The hospital planned to do an extra review of patient encounters with the nurse.
Before working at St. Joseph-Mount Sterling, Whitt worked at Clark Regional Medical Center in Winchester.
Tiffani Stafford, the Winchester hospital's marketing director, said she did not know how long Whitt had worked at the hospital, but that she had left her job in January.
"I don't have the details of her departure," Stafford said. "To the best of our knowledge, her care here was appropriate."
U.S. Magistrate Judge James B. Todd continued the detention hearing, to determine whether Whitt should remain in custody or be released with provisions before trial, until 10 a.m. Oct. 14. But Whitt is expected back in court Friday for arraignment.
Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said authorities had been poring over many patient records at the VA Medical Center since Chain's death. Ginn said his office has been involved only in the investigations into Chain's death and the more recent death of a nurse at the VA hospital.
Jennifer Kay Angelini, 42, a registered nurse at the hospital, was found dead Sept. 22 in a locked restroom on the sixth floor, which houses the hospital's intensive care unit. Ginn said he was waiting for toxicology test results before issuing a ruling in her death.
A few weeks before Whitt's indictment, there was a major shake-up among top management at the VA Medical Center. The chief of staff and the person who oversees the center's nurses were moved into other positions, and officials from other VA medical centers were brought in to do their jobs on a temporary basis.
The medical center is working with consultants to institute many changes at the center, including increasing doctor and nurse staffing and improving the center's patient incident reporting system, according to officials there.