COLUMBUS, Ohio – A Columbus doctor accused of repeatedly prescribing excessive doses of painkillers to critical-care patients now faces 25 counts of murder.
Prosecutors say former Mount Carmel Dr. William S. Husel, 43, either caused or hastened the deaths of dozens of patients by ordering excessive doses of fentanyl. Husel turned himself in to police Wednesday and later pleaded not guilty to all charges.
A typical dose of the potent painkiller is between 25 and 100 micrograms. Husel’s patients were given doses ranging from 500 micrograms to 2,000 micrograms.
One of those patients was Beverlee Ann Schirtzinger, who was brought to Mount Carmel in October 2017. The 63-year-old Grove City woman was dizzy, had chest pain and shortness of breath. The hospital performed a liver biopsy.
Schirtzinger’s condition worsened over the next several days, and ultimately her family withdrew care, according to a lawsuit filed by the family against Husel and Mount Carmel.
On Oct. 9, 2017, Husel ordered 500 micrograms of fentanyl and four grams of the sedative midazolam, which a nurse administered after overriding the hospital’s medication-dispensing cabinet, called Pyxis.
Ten minutes later, Schirtzinger was pronounced dead.
Schirtzinger died just hours after Husel ordered the same dosage to 55-year-old Timothy Fitzpatrick, accelerating his death, according to another lawsuit filed against Husel.
Schirtzinger and Fitzpatrick are two victims named in the 25-count criminal indictment filed against Husel Wednesday, detailing deaths between February 2015 and November 2018. If convicted, Husel would face 15 years to life in prison for each count.
Husel pleaded not guilty to all charges in Franklin County Common Pleas Court, and Magistrate Jennifer Cordle set a $1 million bond.
Husel’s attorney, Richard Blake, called his client’s actions “comfort care.”
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“The patients that we are talking about are end-of-life patients. The people were being kept alive primarily due to equipment in the hospital,” Blake told reporters. “They were going to die whether Dr. Husel was on or whether another doctor was.”
But Columbus Police Chief Tom Quinlan said Husel’s actions were not compassionate.
“This breach of the doctor’s oath is vile,” Quinlan said during a Wednesday news conference.
The criminal investigation
Husel was fired last December after working for the Columbus hospital since 2013. Shortly after Christmas, hospital officials contacted relatives and told them that Husel’s over-prescribing had led to their family members’ deaths.
Alleged victims range from 37 years old to 85 years old, and the conditions that brought them to Mount Carmel included trouble breathing and cancer diagnoses. In many instances, relatives had given permission to not resuscitate their family members.
A slew of lawsuits ensued against Husel, the hospital and staff. Husel’s medical license was suspended. A criminal investigation was launched. At least 30 nurses were placed on leave.
Columbus police and prosecutors chose to focus on deaths where 500 micrograms of fentanyl or more were administered. Several families have filed lawsuits after their relatives were given 200 micrograms of fentanyl or another drug.
Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien said the nurses and pharmacists who administered or approved the drugs will not face criminal charges.
Victims named in the indictment include Emma Bogan, 75; Jan Thomas, 65; Norma Welch, 85; Joanne Bellisari, 69; Ryan Hayes, 39; Timothy Fitzpatrick, 55; Beverlee Schirtzinger, 63; Michael Walters, 57; Robert Lee; Thomas Mathews; Danny Mollette; Larry Brigner, 70; Janet Kavanaugh, 79; Brandy McDonald, 37; Francis Burke; Charles Longstreth; Jeremia Hodge, 57; James Allen, 80; Troy Allison, 44; Corrinnia Blake, 55; Bonnie Austin, 64; James Timmons, 39; Sandra Castle, 80; Rebecca Walls, 75; and Melissa Penix, 82.
A ‘toxic’ environment
Lawsuits allege several complaints were filed against Husel before he was eventually removed from his position.
Attorneys Gerry Leeseberg and Anne Valentine, who are representing 17 families, say the culture at Mount Carmel allowed Husel to prescribe these excessive doses without getting caught for years.
“Clearly, there was some kind of environment that was toxic, that did not allow for the free-flow of information and the raising of concerns and having those concerned properly addressed,” Leeseberg said.
Mount Carmel CEO Ed Lamb, in a video statement, apologized for the tragedy: “We take responsibility for the fact that the processes in place were not sufficient to prevent these actions from happening.”
Lamb, in a statement Wednesday, said Mount Carmel has made “meaningful changes throughout our system to ensure events like these never happen again.”
Families faced with the decision to withdraw medical care from critically ill relatives could do little but trust Husel and Mount Carmel to administer the proper care, attorney Leeseberg said.
“It really is a frightening prospect that this can happen,” he said. “But I really don’t think that there’s anything that any of these family members should question themselves about not having done enough to protect their family member. It’s just not their responsibility.”
Schirtzinger’s daughter, Amy Pfaff, said that her mother was “the most caring, loving person.” If Schirtzinger heard this story on the local news, she would have been crying in her Grove City living room.
That’s why Pfaff filed the lawsuit. That’s why Pfaff was answering questions from a room full of reporters just hours after her mother’s alleged killer was charged.
Pfaff told reporters, “I feel like she’s cheering me on.”
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