Is Dr. William Husel another Doctor Death? an Angel of Mercy? a serial killer? - or, is he simply caught in the ethical gray area between "comfort care" and criminal conduct?
A jury will have to decide.
Dr. William Husel is awaiting trial in Columbus, originally accused of murdering 25 terminally-ill patients by allegedly prescribing lethal doses of fentanyl and other opioids that may have caused or hastened their deaths. The then-Franklin County Prosecutor, Ron O'Brien, describes a serial killer. O'Brien claims that Husel “purposely caused the death” of each intensive care patient over a 3 year period while serving as their critical care physician at 2 Columbus-area hospitals.
The deaths occurred between 2015 and 2018. Upon indictment in 2019, the Associated Press reported, "Prosecutors said ordering such dosages for a nonsurgical situation indicated an intent to end lives." Dr. Husel's attorney, Jose Baez, entered a not guilty plea at his arraignment and said on his client's behalf, "[H]e was providing 'comfort care' for dying patients, not trying to kill them."
Today, the judge in the case dismissed 11 of those charges against the doctor at the request of the prosecutor and after consulting with the families. Each charge carries a life sentence and the current prosecutor felt it was redundant to prepare so many cases considering it is pointless "to incarcerate a man for more lifetimes than he has."
John Futty, of the Columbus Dispatch, compiled a list of the victims in the dismissed cases and the circumstances of their deaths, here. Six of the 11 patients had Do Not Resuscitate orders or other family permission to withdraw care. According to Futty's research, their ages ranged from 55 to 85 and their diagnoses included sepsis, brain swelling, massive stroke, heart failure, and undetermined. All were in the intensive care unit at the time. Many on ventilators.
Unlike all other cases reviewed about medical serial killers, Dr. Husel did not attempt to conceal his conduct. Generally, "Angels of Mercy" act in secrecy and exhibited cruel and often violent tendencies, toward their victims. None of those characteristics were true in these cases.
Dr. Husel didn't act alone.
In fact, his medical orders were entered on the record, prescriptions were filled by pharmacists, and they were administered by nurses. Nobody blinked an eye. In fact, the case only came to the attention of hospital and the prosecutor when a grieving family sought to reconcile the untimely death of their matriarch, at age 63.
According to an article in the Cincinnati Enquirer, by Anne Saker in November 2019,
The public may be leading on this issue. Last year, a survey that Ohio End of Life Options commissioned found, 87% of Ohioans believe terminally ill patients “should be allowed to die in as humane and dignified a manner as they see fit.” The support cut across partisan lines with large majorities.
The Ohio Nurses' Association, with over 11,000 members, has struggled with the issue of mercy for the suffering and hopelessly terminal patients throughout their existence. Currently, 10 states and districts in the United States permit assisted suicide. The Ohio Nurses' Association came out in support of legislation permitting assisted suicide in 2019.
It never made it out the gate.
However, assisted suicide and DNR declarations are not the issues here, but they bear the same theme - avoidable suffering. Medical professionals have wrestled with the terms of "compassionate care" for decades. Doctors and nurses have held the power of life and death in their hands forever. Whether acknowledged or not, it is a regular practice to administer high doses of pain killers in order to alleviate any possibility of suffering and it can easily result in the death of patients.
Having worked on the cancer floor as a medical technician for years, I witnessed this myself. I have seen the suffering with each breath taken when death is imminent. The spike of blood pressure from seemingly unconscious patients in the throws of pain. I have seen mourning families tormented by the same and nurses who respond by "pushing" high doses of morphine quickly, to be merciful. I have even been asked, at my own father's bedside at the Veterans' Hospital, if I wanted them to administer such medication and seen my father peacefully pass minutes later after watching the death clock for hours.
It happens. Often.
In college, I remember in a medical ethics class the professor querying students about this practice. One lone student opposed the practice. I remember she said, "Suffering builds character."
It is no wonder, no wonder at all that nobody said a word.
Numerous nurses and pharmacists acquiesced to Dr. Husel's medical orders at Mt Carmel Hospital, where most of the deaths occurred. Some 48 nurses and pharmacists were implicated in their investigation of these deaths. All were suspended, some fired, others quit. According to a March 2019 article by Kantele Franko of the Associated Press, Ohio Attorney General, Dave Yost was investigating 25 nurses injected the patients.
Nurses are professionals who have a duty to exercise their best judgment, and tens of thousands of them do, every single day,” Attorney General Dave Yost, whose office represents the Ohio Board of Nursing in the matter, said in a statement. “These nurses didn’t.”
Dr. Husel's alleged accomplices have now turned state witnesses against him in the prosecution, as well as, the pharmacists. His trial starts next month.
The issue for the jury will rest on intent. The doctor does not deny he prescribed the medications. The intent of the doctor, the entire medical community, and society will be judged.
In the end, they will decide if there is such a thing as an Angel of Mercy.