Investigators look into cause of hospice deaths

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 26, 2008

JACKSON (AP) — Investigators are looking into several deaths at a Tupelo hospice where some families claim their loved ones were denied prescribed medications and given lethal doses of morphine.

Investigators with the state attorney general’s office are hoping to build a case against several employees of Sanctuary Hospice House, according to several people who said they were questioned about the deaths of family members.

Sources close to the investigation say a grand jury has been hearing testimony related to the deaths this week. Court officials confirmed a grand jury is currently hearing cases. The office of state Attorney General Jim Hood declined to confirm an investigation.

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L.F. Sams, a Tupelo attorney representing the hospice, said in a statement that ‘‘it’s inappropriate for us to make any comment due to a court order and the integrity of the current preceding.’’

The facility is located on Mississippi Highway 6 in Tupelo and can house up to 16 patients, according to its Web site.

‘‘Just looking at it, it’s a beautiful, beautiful place, but it’s very deceitful,’’ said Willie Bennett, who said the deaths of her mother and brother-in-law are among those being examined.

‘‘In my heart it is a killing field,’’ she said.

Bennett said her mother’s death was attributed to heart failure, but she believes medications administered at the hospice, including morphine, brought on death.

Bennett said her mother, Annie Myrtle Higdon, 79, had Parkinson’s disease and a liver condition when she was admitted to the hospice Oct. 18, 2006.

‘‘Within 20 minutes, they gave my mother morphine. They said that was to relax her so she could rest. The following day I returned, she was still out of it,’’ Bennett said on Tuesday. ‘‘My mother never spoke again. She died on the 24th.’’

Bennett said she did not want to discuss her brother-in-law’s death because of the ongoing investigation. But the story she tells about her mother’s death — allegedly heavy doses of morphine and a rapid demise — is eerily similar to the experience another family described.

Rebecca A. Dilliard, of Eatonton, Ga., said investigators with the attorney general’s office told her family that ‘‘they had proof 100 percent that they killed our mother.’’

Dilliard’s sister, Linda Waters of Pontotoc, said she testified Tuesday before the county grand jury. Waters would not discuss specifics of that testimony.

The death of their mother in 2006 was attributed to heart failure, but the family believes otherwise.

This is how the sisters describe their mother’s death. Ester Lee Evans, an 88-year-old woman from Pontotoc, was taken to the hospice on a Saturday in September 2006 suffering from diabetes and smoking related breathing problems. Evans was lucid and even signed herself into the facility. Soon after she checked in, a hospice employee allegedly gave her some type of medication, telling the family only that it ‘‘would help her relax.’’

The next day, Dilliard said, her mother was vomiting and could not function.

‘‘She did not even know who I was,’’ Dilliard said. ‘‘They told me she had a virus.’’

In a few days, Evans was dead.

Evans’ family say they learned the details of her death through investigators, who were tipped off to alleged problems at the hospice by at least one nurse who worked there.

‘‘They put a morphine pump in mother’s arm. She was fighting for her life and pulled it out. Then they put it in her back where she couldn’t get it out,’’ Waters said Monday.

Lee County Coroner Carolyn Gillentine said Tuesday that she did not want to discuss deaths at the hospice but did confirm an investigation.

‘‘Right now I really don’t want to comment on whether any of them have been suspicious or not because there is an ongoing investigation…. Obviously there was some suspicion on someone’s part,’’ Gillentine said. ‘‘There was none on my part until this was brought to my attention.’’

The families of both Evans and Higdon said investigators have told them that in recent years as many as 25-30 people were dying a month at Sanctuary Hospice and that 11 of them were targeted in the investigation. The average number of monthly deaths decreased by half since the investigation began, they said.