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2005 jail death spurs inquiry

Questions arise over nurse's role after an inmate's heart attack
by: , NORMAN

In February 2005, a 43-year-old drug addict and petty thief named Jody Norman was booked into the Multnomah County Detention Center. Three days later he died of a heart attack.

Last week his death resurfaced as part of a yearly review of the county's jails that raised questions as to whether the county's corrections health division, which provides medical care to inmates, handled the incident correctly.

On Dec. 20, a report of the county's annual corrections grand jury noted that the corrections health division had failed to notify authorities of what the grand jury characterized as two instances of potential criminal conduct that were investigated by the Oregon State Board of Nursing.

One case involved a pending investigation of a nurse for 'diverting drugs' from the jails. The other, alluding to Norman, involved an earlier nursing board investigation of 'a corrections health nurse's conduct with respect to an inmate who died from a heart attack.'

Both cases now are being investigated for potential criminal charges. The name of the nurse in the drug case has not been released. The nurse in the Norman case, William Lee James, 59, now is working in California.

'I don't know what's going on,' James said when contacted by the Portland Tribune.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Don Rees declined to discuss the case other than to say it was brought to prosecutors' attention by the state nursing board.

Following a series of articles in the Portland Tribune highlighting how the board had failed to notify authorities about potential crimes by nurses, the state has had investigators combing through cases to find ones that were overlooked.

The case involving Norman's death may not rise to the level of a crime, but it could add a new level of scrutiny to the corrections health division.

According to records obtained from the nursing board, after Norman's death, James was suspended for a minimum of 30 days for, among other things, saying in patient records that a doctor had directed him to administer Ativan, an anti-anxiety drug, to Norman, when in fact no such conversation had occurred.

At 3 a.m. Feb. 19, 2005, Norman had been complaining of chest pain and anxiety; after James administered the Ativan, Norman calmed down enough to go to sleep.

In the morning, Norman went to breakfast, and returned to his cell. At 9:35 a.m. he was found there, not breathing.

Asked about the state board's findings, James admitted he had not spoken to a doctor that night, but said that his record keeping was standard internal procedure when it came to administering Ativan.

James, who works at a hospital west of Sacramento, claimed the on-call doctor had told nurses not to call in the middle of the night when it came to anxiety symptoms, but to go ahead and administer medication and he would sign off on it in the morning.

'Then the patient died, and the doctor denied ever having said that,' James said.

After Norman's death, 'I felt terrible,' James said, adding that the location of the inmate's chest pain did not suggest heart problems.

'I've asked myself a thousand times, 'What happened, what did I miss?' ' he said. 'And I honestly can't come up with an answer.'

The district attorney is reviewing the case to see whether James committed a crime by falsely writing that he'd spoken with the doctor.

According to Vanetta Abdellatif, a manager who oversees the Corrections Health division, the county attorney's office reviewed the Norman case and found that there was no crime involved.

The county attorney's finding of no crime could indicate that James told the truth about having followed an unofficial internal policy. However, the county doctor named by James, Todd Engstrom, did not respond to a Portland Tribune voice mail before press time.