Howard hospital nurse switched drugs, police say Theft of painkillers from cancer wing, substitution alleged

August 16, 1991|By Jackie Powder

A nurse at Howard County General Hospital has been charged with stealing painkillers intended for cancer patients and replacing the medicine with other drugs that could have been lethal, police said.

Lowell Richard Osborne, 41, of Severn was being held on $100,000 bond at the Howard County Detention Center. He was arrested July 24 and charged with reckless endangerment, theft and possession of a controlled dangerous substance after a weeklong investigation by Howard County police.

Switching the drugs, which Mr. Osborne allegedly stole for his own use, could have caused death or serious injury to patients, police said.

Steven Cohen, senior vice president for operations at Howard County General Hospital, said he had no reason to believe that patients received the wrong medication or were adversely affected in any way. He said he didn't know how long Mr. Osborne had worked at the hospital and declined to comment further.

Mr. Osborne's attorney, Gregory C. Powell, would not comment on the case.

It has not been determined whether any patients received injections of substitute drugs, said Detective David J. Trapani. "We're just lucky that nobody died as a result of this," Detective Trapani said. "This happened in a critical-care unit on a cancer ward."

On five different occasions between July 20 and July 24, police said, Mr. Osborne allegedly replaced the painkillers Demerol, morphine and codeine with the drugs Vistaril and Compazine, which commonly are used for preventing nausea.

For cancer patients, who generally receive repeated doses of painkillers, the abrupt cessation of the medication could produce withdrawal symptoms and even death, said Dr. Becky Finley, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.

Withdrawal symptoms include nervousness, tremors and abdominal pain, Dr. Finley said.

Injecting patients with the substitute drugs Vistaril and Compazine could have caused death or a range of adverse reactions, from drowsiness to a comatose state, said Dr. Wendy Klein-Schwartz, director of the Maryland Poison Center.

Medical experts said that Vistaril and Compazine would not have HTC relieved patients' pain.

Since Mr. Osborne's arrest, Howard County General Hospital has tightened its security regarding access to patient medication, Detective Trapani said.

The hospital had contacted police after a nurse became suspicious that Mr. Osborne was stealing medication. The nurse noticed Mr. Osborne taking several boxes of labeled Demerol and morphine from a pocket and putting them inside one of the secured medication carts for distribution to patients, court records said.

An analysis by an independent laboratory revealed that the painkillers had been drained from syringes and replaced with either Vistaril or Compazine, Detective Trapani said.

After reviewing the drug analysis, hospital staff members said that had one of the drugs been administered to a patient, "it could very well cause or contribute to their death," police said.

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