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Families sue doctor accused of ordering fatal doses of pain medications for dying patients

"These kind of decisions are supposed to be left up to the family and the patient, and not unilaterally by the physician," a lawyer for a plaintiff said.
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A widower who lost his wife to a lethal dosage of pain medication while she was hospitalized last year is speaking out against an Ohio doctor who allegedly administered "significantly excessive and potentially fatal" doses of pain medicine to multiple near-death patients.

The Columbus-area Mount Carmel Health System announced one of its former intensive care doctors, Dr. William Husel, ordered excessive dosages of pain medication to at least 27 near-death patients, The Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Mount Carmel Health System and Husel are now the subject of three lawsuits from families claiming negligence led to the deaths of their loved ones.

Bonnie Austin, a 64-year-old homemaker and former waitress, was ill last year and asked her husband of 36 years to call for help when she began to have problems breathing, the husband, David Austin, told NBC News.

"She went into cardiac or respiratory arrest, I guess," Austin said. "They took her to the emergency room."

Doctors at Mount Carmel told Austin that his wife's heart had given out and she would be put on a machine.

Image: David Austin with his wife, Bonnie, in an undated photo
David Austin with his wife, Bonnie, in an undated photo.Courtesy David Austin

He was worried but "wasn't awful scared, you know, because I figured she was still with us," Austin said.

Not long after, she was taken to intensive care, and her husband was later told she was brain dead.

"I couldn’t understand," he tearfully recalled.

Bonnie Austin died on Sept. 30 at the hospital.

About a week later, Austin learned she had died of an overdose of fentanyl and Versed, a sedative, according to a lawsuit filed in state court in Franklin County, Ohio.

"And then I got very suspicious," he said.

Another lawsuit was filed against Dr. Husel and Mount Carmel on behalf of the estate of Janet Kavanaugh, who had been a patient at Mount Carmel West Hospital when she died on Dec. 11, 2017, according to the suit that was also filed in Franklin County.

The suit says Kavanaugh, 79, was prescribed and administered a "lethal dose" of fentanyl — 1,000 micrograms — through her IV. She was pronounced dead 18 minutes later.

According to the suit, Kavanaugh's family learned on Monday that her death was not an isolated incident and that at least 26 other patients were allegedly similarly affected and that "multiple physicians, nurses, and pharmacists have been fired based on this conduct."

Gerry Leeseberg, a lawyer who filed the suit for Kavanaugh's estate, said she had not consented to being given the high dose of fentanyl, nor was he aware that she had ever previously been given that drug for pain relief.

"This is beyond the pale," Leeseberg said. "We want to know who was involved in this decision and what the hell happened."

David Austin's lawyer, David Shroyer, said his client was never informed by staff that they would be administering a large dose of fentanyl to his wife.

"These kind of decisions are supposed to be left up to the family and the patient, and not unilaterally by the physician," Shroyer said. "But when you're not in a position to advocate or understand for yourself, you trust your physician."

Leeseberg's law firm also filed a third lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of the estate of Troy L. Allison, who died in July 2018. The suit alleges that Allison died after Husel ordered a "grossly excessive and inappropriate dosage of narcotics."

The Franklin County Prosecutor's Office said it is investigating allegations in the cases along with the Columbus police's homicide unit.

Image: Dr William Husel
Dr William HuselWCMH

Court records list no attorney to comment on Husel's behalf, and phone numbers linked to him weren't accepting calls.

Mount Carmel confirmed in a statement that Husel was fired, and it has removed 20 employees from patient care pending further review.

During the five years that Husel worked for the hospital, he ordered "significantly excessive and potentially fatal doses of pain medication for at least 27 patients who were near death. These patients' families had requested that all life-saving measures be stopped, yet the amount of medicine the doctor ordered was more than what was needed to provide comfort," the statement said.

In a video statement, system President and CEO Ed Lamb said the company is "doing everything to understand how this happened and what we need to do to ensure that it never happens again."

Husel's work also is under internal review by the Cleveland Clinic, where he was a supervised resident from 2008 to 2013. The medical center said its preliminary review found his prescribing practices were "consistent with appropriate care."

Records show the State Medical Board in Ohio has never taken disciplinary action against Husel. It's unclear whether that board ever received a complaint or conducted an investigation about him, as such records are confidential and outcomes are public only if the board takes formal action.

Shroyer said he expects the case will prompt other hospitals to review their own procedures and safeguards.

"I think every hospital in the country is going to be saying, 'Could this happen at our hospital? And if it can, let's fix it,'" he said.