Unauthorised drugs found in patient's body

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A HEROIN addict discovered hanged while voluntarily undergoing detoxification at a trust hospital's psychiatric unit was found to have a high level of methadone in his body even though he was not receiving the drug as part of his treatment, an inquest was told yesterday.

David Lang's sister, Lorraine Rowe, told the inquest jury that she was convinced he had been getting the drug, a heroin substitute, from an unauthorised person walking on to the ward at the Lister Hospital, Stevenage, Hertfordshire, where there have been six suicides between May and September this year.

Authorities at the hospital, part of the North Herts NHS Trust, have already conducted an inquiry into the suicides, five of which were in the psychiatric unit where Mr Lang died in June this year.

The unit was involved in an earlier controversy when, following the death of a female patient, one of the unit's nursing sisters was struck off the register after being convicted of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice when she changed her story over the woman's death in January 1990.

Yesterday's inquest at Hitchin, Hertfordshire, heard that Mr Lang, 35, from Stevenage, was accepted on to the 24-patient psychiatric ward on 4 June this year to help him kick his half gram a day heroin addiction.

On arrival he signed a contract, which was not legally binding, demanding certain standards of behaviour while there, that he should be visited only by specified family members and close friends, and that he was not allowed to leave except accompanied by a nurse, or he would be discharged.

A urine test, on 8 June, showed that he had no methadone, an artificial heroin-type drug used to help addicts kick their habit, in his body. Doctors there said that he had chosen a regime of three other drugs to help cure him.

Mr Lang, divorced with two children, appeared to be making good progress according to staff although he became depressed when his girlfriend ended their relationship during his stay. However, his spirits were said to have improved before he died, though he did talk of suicide with another patient it was later discovered.

Nursing staff found him hanging from a 3ft-high bathroom rail by the purple towelling belt of his dressing-gown on 17 June. He was in a seated position, but suspended just high enough off the floor to cut the bloodflow to his brain which made him unconscious and caused his death within four to five minutes, said Dr Ian Holder, a consultant pathologist.

Dr Patrick Toseland, a consultant toxicologist from Guy's Hospital, London, found the levels of methadone present in his body at death had been so high that he had taken 50 milligram doses, equivalent to a double whisky, for each of the previous four or five days. The residue of cannabis was also found in his tissues, though this could have been taken up to a week beforehand.

At first Dr Toseland believed the amount of methadone was consistent with what he thought was a 'maintenance' dose being used to wean Mr Lang off heroin, only later discovering that this was not part of his treatment.

None of the staff who gave evidence at the inquest could say how Mr Lang obtained the methadone, though Iwona Barltrop, the consultant psychiatrist in charge of Mr Lang's treatment, admitted that on the night before his death one of the staff believed he might have got some drugs.

However, Mrs Rowe said her brother had been continually demanding money totalling up to pounds 70 while he was at the hospital even though he had no apparent need for it. 'You tell me what was going in there. It's a bloody shambles up there. I have found out since that someone was going in there everyday and giving him drugs, someone not on the contract,' she added.

The hearing continues today.

(Photograph omitted)