Is her 'living hell' over? Stockport nurse cleared to go back to work

After six weeks in custody, Leighton cleared of saline deaths but admits stealing drugs

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The Independent Online

A nurse who was suspected of being involved in the deaths of several patients at a hospital has been told she can return to work, despite admitting stealing drugs.

Rebecca Leighton was released from six weeks in custody a fortnight ago after charges of criminal damage with intent to endanger life were dropped. The nurse, who was accused of tampering with saline solution at Stepping Hill hospital in Stockport, where three patients had died, said her life had been a "living hell" since her arrest on 20 July on suspicion of murder.

Yesterday a hearing of the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) reinstated her registration, but the hospital's NHS Trust said she would remain suspended pending their own investigation. The day-long hearing was told that police had refused to rule out the chance that further evidence might be found against the 27-year-old as part of an investigation into hundreds of staff at the hospital.

It was also revealed that while Greater Manchester Police had not pursued a case of theft against her, the force had written to say she had admitted stealing three different drugs, including the highly addictive opioid tramadol, from her workplace.

Joined by her parents, Lynda and David Leighton, and her boyfriend, Tim Papworth, Ms Leighton appeared before the NMC yesterday to appeal against an interim order suspending her registration after her arrest.

Last night the chairman of the panel, Dr John Unsworth, said it had agreed to rescind her suspension but placed strict conditions on her return to nursing. Ms Leighton will be confined to working at Stepping Hill, will not be allowed to handle drugs and will only be permitted to administer medicinal products under the supervision of a nurse.

"The panel considers the theft of drugs a serious allegation which calls into question the honesty and integrity of the registrant," he said, adding that the conditions would be reviewed every six months while the NMC conducted its own investigation.

Stockport NHS Foundation Trust said Ms Leighton remained suspended pending its own investigation, but added that she would now revert to full pay. Yesterday Salim Hafejee, case presenter for the NMC, had argued that the order should remain in place, insisting the fact that Ms Leighton had stolen drugs suggested she was using them herself.

Referring to the case of serial killer Dr Harold Shipman, he said: "One hesitates to bandy around the name of Shipman too regularly, but you will be well aware of the impact of professional dependency on drugs and the perception that creates."

Referring to a letter sent by Greater Manchester Detective Superintendent Simon Barraclough, he said that partially empty boxes of tramadol, antibiotics and ibuprofen were found at her home. A charge of theft was discontinued after police decided any penalty would be nullified by the time she had already spent in custody.

"Tramadol is a dependency-forming drug which is also open to abuse by people who are dependent," Mr Hafejee said. "Taking this case at its highest, the suggestion is that it is being taken for her own use. Why is she taking these drugs? Are there underlying psychological issues or dependency?"

Paul Rooney, representing Ms Leighton, insisted that the NMC case was based on inference. "There are lots of reasons why these medicines could have been in her house. We say it is a leap of faith that it must have been for her own use.

"There is a real danger in a case that has attracted so much publicity, unless care is taken, that it will descend into a trial by media. This is a woman who presently is facing no criminal charges," he added.