Police in hospital deaths inquiry

Nurse dismissed after four patients die in intensive care unit
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Police are investigating the deaths of four patients, including two girls aged 12 and 15, in the adult intensive care ward of a Newcastle upon Tyne hospitalfollowing the dismissal of a nurse sacked for "gross misconduct". All four patients who died had at one time been under the care of the nurse now under investigation.

Northumbria police, called in by the coroner to conduct a full inquiry, are examining hospital records going back to 1991.

Jim Cousins, MP for Newcastle Central, yesterday called for a public inquiry into the management of the intensive care unit at the Royal Victoria Infirmary. "We are clearly talking about extremely grave events which have occurred over a long period of time," he said. Mr Cousins added that if matters now involved the criminal law, why was it left to the coroner's office to bring in the police? "Why did the hospital trust not raise the alarm sooner if they had suspicions?"

Northumbria police confirmed a team of 12 detectives, headed by Detective Superintendent John Renwick is investigating the deaths.

The nurse, in her late 30s, worked at the Royal Victoria Infirmary for 17 years before being sacked at a full disciplinary hearing last month. She had already been suspended for a month after an internal inquiry questioned her professional conduct relating to four deaths in the ITU between 1991 and 1995. The police said yesterday they would interview the nurse this week once initial inquiries were completed.

A force spokeswoman said relatives of three patients were being contacted, but one of the patients has yet to be identified. All four were from the North-east. Like many intensive care units, both the infirmary's adult and paediatric intensive care wards were said by one senior medical source in Newcastle to be under "a great deal of pressure". A hospital spokeswoman said the two girls who died would normally have been admitted to the children's ITU, they had been moved to the adult unit "because of the nature of their injuries".

The patients who died in the ITU also included a 69-year-old woman and a middle aged man. Relatives of the dead 15-year-old, Patricia Dryden, from Blyth, said yesterday they had "been through hell" but were now facing another nightmare asking themselves could Patricia have lived?

Patricia's uncle, John Dryden, confirmed police had told the family they were investigating "irregularities in procedures in the intensive care unit". His niece had died after a gas aerosol she had been sniffing had ignited and exploded in her face. The burns she sustained were said to be "extreme".

Concerns over the nurse's conduct were raised at the beginning of this year by another nurse who worked in the unit. Although not confirmed by the hospital authorities or the police, it is understood there were concerns over the removal of treatment for some seriously ill patients, and that in one case a drip feed was turned off without appropriate authority from the physician in charge.

Following an internal inquiry at the infirmary, during which the nurse was suspended, a disciplinary hearing was scheduled for March. The nurse, and the staff member who first alerted the hospital authorities, were both represented at the hearing by counsel from the Royal College of Nursing.

According to the Coroner's Office in Newcastle, the coroner, Leonard Coyle, was telephoned by the hospital's solicitor shortly after the sacking. On learning the alleged facts behind the dismissal, Mr Coyle called in the Northumbria police to carry out a full investigation. After her dismissal, the nurse lodged an immediate appeal. The RCN said yesterday: "We will not be representing the nurse at her appeal, but will offer legal representation if she needs it at a later date."

Police inquiries will include interviewing hospital staff and relatives of the patients. Medical records have been obtained by a court order granted by Judge Maurice Carr under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.