"Families wonder if their loved ones were overdrugged"
The Bakersfield Californian
BY STACEY SHEPARD AND JAMES BURGER, Californian staff writers
Monday, Feb 23 2009 4:59 PM
The arrests of three medical staffers accused of overdrugging patients at a Lake Isabella-area nursing home have families wondering if their relatives were victims, too.
"When I was handed the newspaper by a co-worker, I felt like somebody had slammed me in the stomach," said Betty Dennison. Her mother-in-law, Beulah Dennison, died Jan. 21, 2007, less than three months after she was placed at the Kern Valley Healthcare District's skilled nursing facility.
Several days before Beulah's death, a nurse told Dennison her mother-in-law had been drugged to keep her quiet and complacent.
Patti McGarvey's 74-year-old mother, Norma Lee Cudahy, entered the facility in March 2006 to recover from knee surgery and died in November from a stroke. McGarvey doesn't know what drugs her mother received but after hearing the alleged druggings targeted patients who complained or acted out, she got worried.
Her mother had complained she'd lain in her own urine for two days.
"I said, 'Mom, if you're not happy here you can speak up and say something,'" McGarvey recalled. "And she told me, 'Oh no. If you do that, you'll pay for it.'"
Neither Beulah Dennison nor Norma Lee Cudahy were identified as victims in the criminal complaint.
The California Attorney General's Office has alleged the Kern Valley facility's director of nursing, Gwen D. Hughes, pharmacist, Debbi Gayle Hayes, and physician, Dr. Hoshang M. Pormir, over-medicated at least 22 patients, leading to three deaths.
The alleged druggings occurred between August 2006 and January 2007. Interviews with nurses cited in the criminal complaint said the drugging was done primarily to residents who acted out, complained or were "troublesome."
The defendants have declined interview requests from The Californian.
The attorney general's office is following up on several phone calls from people who believe their relatives may also have been over-drugged, spokesman Abraham Arredondo said Monday.
If the claims are substantiated, they will be added to the case.
Tish Orr, a registered nurse at the Kern Valley facility for 25 years, said the druggings were orchestrated by nursing director Hughes.
Orr recalled Hughes ordering a potent anti-psychotic drug be given to an Alzheimer's patient.
"I would have him up at the nurses' station while I was working, and he'd been drinking coffee and eating graham crackers and was happy as could be," she said. "But he'd say the same thing 140 times in a row and it drove her nuts, and that's why she had him medicated."
"From that day on, he didn't eat or drink. He was so weak he couldn't be in his wheelchair anymore."
The man eventually died.
Some residents were medicated because they refused to go to the dining room, Orr said. Another was ordered drugged after she became agitated and threw a drink.
Orr said she was blocked from voicing her concerns.
"I went to (Hughes) about people being lethargic because of the mediations they were given and her response to me was, 'This conversation is at an end. You may leave now.' "
When Orr went to higher-level staff, they either brushed her off or the complaint got back Hughes, she said, who threatened to fire nurses or have their licenses revoked.
"We were so cowed and threatened with losing our jobs and our licenses, that after a while we just shut our mouths and did what we had to do."
Orr said she left the facility in January 2007 after having a mental breakdown.
SOMETHNG WASN'T RIGHT
For Dennison and McGarvey, the criminal case has roused anger and frustration.
McGarvey said she didn't know what medications her mother received because she didn't have power of attorney. But she can't shake the idea that something else contributed to her mother's fast decline.
"My mom had knee surgery and was supposed to come home. She had a sound mind," McGarvey said. "The next thing I know, she's practically in a coma."
"She was murdered," Dennison said of her mother-in-law. "If these patients died, why is it not manslaughter?"
The three defendants have each been charged with eight felony counts of elder abuse. Hayes and Hughes have also been charged with two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, for allegedly forcing injections.
Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. said last week the charges relate to how the law is written. In this case, the appropriate charge is assault with a deadly weapon.