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Two more psychiatric patients commit suicide at Tampa General

TAMPA — Two patients in Tampa General Hospital's psychiatric unit hanged themselves with bedsheets last month two days apart, according to public records.

One was on a "suicide watch," a Hillsborough County medical examiner's report states.

Both were found too late.

The deaths marked the second time in a year that the hospital has come under scrutiny for its care of patients admitted for their own protection.

In July 2007, a man jumped to his death from the hospital's parking garage — hours after his release from psychiatric care and his unsuccessful appeal to be readmitted.

Last month, a 44-year-old Tampa woman checked herself into the hospital, telling staffers she had been thinking about suicide, according to the medical examiner's report.

Three days later, on July 21 at 8:15 p.m., hospital workers discovered her hanging from a closet door. A Tampa police officer reported that the patient committed suicide between 15-minute security checks.

That day, police took a 28-year-old Lake Mary man to Tampa General for psychiatric care, holding him under Florida's Baker Act after he had been found wandering and knocking on doors. He was bipolar and schizophrenic and previously had attempted suicide, the medical examiner reported.

On July 23, at 4:45 p.m., a hospital worker found the man with a sheet around his neck and the other end on a door. Medical staff tried to save him, but he was pronounced dead the next day.

The St. Petersburg Times is withholding the names of the two patients.

TGH spokesman John Dunn would not answer questions about the latest incidents but said in a written statement that the hospital was reviewing its policies.

"While we are confident in our safety protocols and procedures, we are reviewing them to determine if there are other steps or policies that can be implemented that go beyond the existing standards to better detect, prevent or deter these types of events in the future," the statement read.

He said the hospital reported the deaths to state and federal regulatory agencies. Doctors have met with the patients' families, he said.

Final autopsy reports have not been completed, but the medical examiner described the preliminary cause of death as hanging.

According to Tampa General's Web site, the psychiatric unit has 22 beds and treats patients with a range of mental illnesses, including anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia. Registered nurses and mental health technicians are on staff 24 hours a day. Patients see a psychiatrist daily.

Dr. Brian Keefe, Tampa General's director of psychiatric services, talked with the Times last year about the difficulty of managing suicidal patients.

"There has never been a tool published, a set of questions to ask, a blood test to run; there has never been an instrument or a tool to predict who will kill themselves and who wouldn't," he said.

His remarks followed the July 31, 2007, death of James Allen, 43, a mentally ill homeless man who jumped to his death from the fifth floor of the hospital's parking garage.

Allen had stayed in the psychiatric ward for six days before being released. He returned four hours later, saying he was so depressed he thought about jumping in front of a car. Doctors evaluated him again and released him with instructions to go to a mental health care center the next morning.

On Monday, Allen's father, John Allen, 77, of Albuquerque, reflected on the anniversary of his son's loss in light of the new deaths.

"It's not surprising at all considering what happened to our son," Allen said. "The system just failed him — whatever the system's supposed to be."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Sue Carlton and Michael Brassfield contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Two more psychiatric patients commit suicide at Tampa General 08/11/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 17, 2008 8:23pm]
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