Franklin Sq. former nurse charged with manslaughter

Parkinson's patient suffered fatal injuries

April 21, 2001|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

A former nurse at Franklin Square Hospital Center was arrested yesterday and charged with manslaughter in the case of an 81-year-old patient who died after her arms - which were permanently locked across her chest - were pried apart.

The arrest follows an intensive investigation into what police and prosecutors say is one of the most bizarre homicides in recent Baltimore County history. The incident sparked a state investigation into procedures at Franklin Square.

Police in Memphis, Tenn., arrested Ethel B. Barlow, 50, at her home yesterday morning. She faces charges of involuntary manslaughter, first-degree assault, abuse and reckless endangerment. Barlow, who was indicted earlier this week by a county grand jury, is scheduled to appear at an extradition hearing in Memphis on Monday.

"We wanted to cover all bases and look at every aspect of the case before we did something serious like indict a person," said James O. Gentry, an assistant state's attorney for the county. "I was looking for some accidental cause, some explanation, because it is just unbelievable that this could have happened."

Gentry said Barlow, who had no complaints on her record, told police she is innocent. She could not be reached to comment.

Ruth F. Bowen, a Parkinson's disease patient, was admitted to Franklin Square on Oct. 30 for a swallowing disorder. Bowen also suffered from a disorder that caused her arms to be permanently crossed.

On Nov. 2, one day before she was to be transferred to a nursing home, hospital workers noticed that Bowen's arms had been straightened and were at her side. Bowen, who weighed 61 pounds, died four days later of torn biceps and severe hemorrhaging, Gentry said.

"The medical examiner indicated there was an extreme amount of force necessary to cause these injuries, and he determined these injuries caused her death," Gentry said.

Gentry alleges that Barlow, a temporary licensed practical nurse at the hospital, entered Bowen's room Nov. 2 and straightened her arms.

He said he knows of no motive in the incident.

Gentry said investigators identified Barlow as a suspect because witnesses saw her enter Bowen's room "about the time" the incident is believed to have occurred.

An attorney hired by Bowen's family, Marvin Ellin, said an inves- tigation by his office determined that Barlow entered the patient's room five minutes after her children left.

In February, Ellin filed a $10 million malpractice lawsuit against Franklin Square on behalf of Bowen's relatives. The suit has since been "resolved," he said, though he declined to disclose terms of the settlement. Ellin has also filed malpractice suits against Barlow and her employer, AMN Healthcare Inc., based in San Diego.

AMN Healthcare is the second-largest temporary-nursing agency in the country, said Trina Adams, a spokeswoman for Franklin Square. Adams said the hospital continues to hire nurses from the agency.

The lawsuit filed against Franklin Square contended that Barlow - who was suspended shortly after the incident - pulled down Bowen's arms, then left the room and had a nurse administer morphine so the patient would stop "the severe moaning."

The Maryland Office of Health Care Quality found "moderate deficiencies" at the hospital during and shortly after Bowen's death when it investigated the matter earlier this year.

It took three hours for hospital staff to notice Bowen's injuries and an hour for a physician's assistant to order an X-ray, according to the state report. The physician's assistant evaluated the X-ray but failed to notice that Bowen had fractured ribs. A radiologist identified the fractures 13 hours after they occurred. The report also said it appeared that a doctor was not notified of Bowen's injuries until 10 hours after they occurred.

The hospital released a statement yesterday that said administrators were "greatly concerned about the circumstances surrounding the death of Ruth F. Bowen."

"The hospital hopes this incident is resolved quickly and fairly by the authorities," the statement said.

Gentry acknowledged that not knowing a motive will make prosecutors' jobs more difficult if the case goes to trial. "There has been nothing like this" before, he said. "This is certainly one of the most unusual homicide cases."

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