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Patient deaths blamed on lethal drugs

Published Oct. 1, 2005

Two elderly women died in the past six months because nurses accidentally injected them with a chemical used to execute death-row prisoners.

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported Sunday that the chemical, undiluted potassium chloride, was stored on patient floors in two Sonoma County hospitals. Nationwide warnings called for it to be restricted to hospital pharmacies.

Irene Fox, 80, of Santa Rosa was undergoing tests for pancreatic cancer at Community Hospital in October when a nurse began cleaning an intravenous line leading to Fox's heart. Instead of using a harmless saline solution, the nurse used a vial of undiluted potassium chloride, according to the coroner's report.

Fox's daughter, Colleen, recalls hearing her mother cry, "This hurts," as the drug was injected. "My mother sat up, . . . seizured and died within a few seconds."

Three months later, another 80-year-old, Beverly Coffman of Windsor, died at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. The newspaper said she also was accidentally injected with undiluted potassium chloride.

Officials at both hospitals said the deaths were caused by human error.

The nurses will not be criminally charged, but face an investigation and possible disciplinary action by the state Board of Registered Nursing.