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Ex-Nurse Held in Deaths of 6 Patients at Hospital

Investigation: Records show man treated 130 of 147 patients who died in nearly two-year period. His lawyer calls murder charges a 'travesty.'

December 30, 1997|JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — A former intensive-care nurse at a rural Indiana hospital was arrested and charged Monday with the murders of six patients following a 33-month investigation into more than 100 deaths that occurred while he was on duty.

State police examined 165 deaths at Vermillion County Hospital, north of Terre Haute, and exhumed 15 bodies of patients who lost their lives while under the care of Orville Lynn Majors, 36.

Majors was listed in hospital records as treating 130 of 147 patients who died in the intensive-care unit between May 1993 and March 1995.

He has strongly denied wrongdoing since the inquiry began.

The hospital suspended him in March 1995, and the Indiana State Nursing Board suspended his license for at least five years that December for performing duties beyond his authority.

"I am shocked, stunned and severely disappointed," Majors' attorney, I. Marshall Pinkus, told the Associated Press. "It's a travesty."

About 65 families have filed a class-action suit against the 56-bed facility, which now is known as West Central Community Hospital, alleging negligence in supervising Majors. "I fully expected it," the plaintiffs' attorney, Joe Anderson, said of the arrest. "There is no other possible reasonable explanation than that foul play was involved."

Majors is being held without bail in the Vermillion County Jail.

In the early 1990s, deaths in the intensive-care unit ranged from 24 to 31 annually. In 1994, that number jumped to 101, although admissions for the hospital remained at roughly the same level.

An epidemiological study of the hospital's mortality rate, commissioned by prosecutors and summarized in a court affidavit Monday, concluded that a death occurred every 23.1 hours when Majors was working--from his first day on the job on March 1, 1993, to his last, on March 31, 1995. During the same period, one death occurred every 551.6 hours when Majors was not working.

From July 1994 through December 1995, the hospital's deaths reached "epidemic proportions," according to Steven Lamm, the consultant who conducted the study.

During that period, hospital employees told investigators, Majors became much more irritable, especially when someone criticized him, according to the affidavit.

According to the affidavit, co-workers said Majors referred to patients' family members as "white trash" and "dirt" and "a bunch of whiners." He made fun of poor people, and two former friends told investigators that he'd been saying for years that he hated old people. "They should all be gassed," one quoted Majors as saying sometime during the mid-1980s.

At first, the deaths were just a mystery. One nurse in the intensive-care unit questioned her own ability, the affidavit says, wondering aloud to a doctor why so many patients were dying when she worked and why they followed such a strange pattern: first respiratory arrest, then erratic heartbeat, which seemed to be the reverse of the expected order of things.

Then the night-shift nurses started joking about which patients would die the next day when Majors was on the schedule. They had figured out that patients seemed to succumb on his watch.

His work partners did not find it a laughing matter. They told investigators they began to track mysterious changes in condition: A patient was holding steady when a nurse left to get a unit of blood and, minutes later, Majors came out of the room, stating, "She's dead." The deaths around shift changes. The deaths at lunchtime when Majors was left alone in the ICU.

Last spring, police seized potassium chloride from Majors' van and a number of syringes and needles from his former home. He also, the affidavit noted, was "found to be in possession of epinephrine containers outside the hospital environment." Epinephrine is a heart stimulant.

Court documents alleged that these patients were murder victims: Luella A. Hopkins, who died Jan. 8, 1994; Cecil Ivan Smith, who died April 3, 1994; Dorothea L. Hixon, who died April 23, 1994; Mary Ann Alderson, who died Nov. 7, 1994; Margaret A. Hornick, who died Nov. 25, 1994; and Freddie Dale Wilson, who died Feb. 16, 1995.

Doris Stillwell's name was not among them. But her son, James, will always wonder. In August 1994, Doris Stillwell, 87, told her son she felt good enough to go home rather than undergo gallstone surgery at Vermillion the next day. But he talked her into staying, then left to grab a bite to eat and see his wife at home.

Four hours later, his mother was dead.

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