Local News

Report: Morphine overdose contributed to nursing home death

Posted May 7, 2010

— An excessive amount of morphine contributed to the February death of an Alzheimer's patient at a Chapel Hill nursing home, according to a medical examiner's report released late Thursday.

Nine of the approximately 25 patients in the Alzheimer's unit at Britthaven of Chapel Hill tested positive in mid-February for opiates, a class of controlled substances often used for pain management, officials said. Six of them were hospitalized, and 84-year-old Rachel Holliday, died on Feb. 16.

An autopsy wasn't performed on Holliday, but a medical examiner who reviewed her records determined that she died because of pneumonia-related asphyxiation, according to the medical examiner's report. The report lists "morphine toxicity" as a contributing factor to her death, noting that tests done at UNC Hospitals determined she had a morphine level of more than 50,000 nanograms per milliliter of urine.

Drug testing done in the military and many workplaces considers a morphine level of 2,000 nanograms per milliliter as a positive test result.

Officials have said Holliday and some of the other Alzheimer's patients who tested positive weren't supposed to be receiving any pain medication at Britthaven.

The medical examiner couldn't determine whether Holliday died because of a homicide, an accident or natural causes.

The State Bureau of Investigation and the Medicaid Investigations Unit of the state Attorney General's Office are looking into possible wrongdoing at Britthaven, at 1716 Legion Road. Details of their investigations haven't been made public yet.

A spokesman said the Kinston-based company is cooperating with the investigations.

The state Nursing Home Licensure Section sent a team of inspectors to Britthaven two days after Holliday's death to gather information about drugs administered to Alzheimer's patients there.

Britthaven tested all staff members of the Alzheimer's unit for drugs and placed them on paid leave. The tests came back negative, and the spokesman said some of the staffers have since returned to work.

Britthaven of Chapel Hill now monitors the Alzheimer's unit around the clock, and officials have replaced some medication and eliminated some dietary supplements for patients.


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  • liskm May 7, 2010

    Your best safety net when you have a loved one in these places is to visit frequently and not on a predictable schedule. ASK questions. Review care given (not given). Go to the TOP if you aren't happy. Upfront visit facilities, check out their track record.

  • scoobychk May 7, 2010

    Your county has a Geriatric/Adult Specialty Team (GAST). They go out to long term care facilities and teach staff/care givers about behavioral health care for free. You can contact your local Mental Health LME and get the contact information. This program is funded by the state to assist those who are caring for our elderly. It's a wonderful program.

  • Iconoclast May 7, 2010

    The details of this case remain to be seen. However, it is common practice by -some- nursing home employees to keep the clients under their care doped up so that they (the patients) won't bother them (the employees). This can happen because most nursing homes don't have the oversight in place to catch it. Nursing homes need better oversight of their facilities and the state needs better oversight of nursing homes. Employees caught giving opiates or sedatives (with no prescription) for the purpose of keeping their clients quiet should be prosecuted the same as dope dealers.

  • gordonbabe May 7, 2010

    I went to church with Rachel and her family. This has been horrible for everyone involved. I can only hope, for the family's sake, that no "intentional" wrongdoing is found.

  • kayefivestar May 7, 2010

    my dad was in a alzheimers unit & trust me the things that go on
    they know the patient can not tell anyone whats going on since they have alzheimers. we need a law that all alzheimer units should have camera's in the rooms & hallways, so when something happens the family can see for themselves & the nursing home can have proof if they didn't do anything.

  • EasyU May 7, 2010

    See these stories a lot. Can someone (anyone) recommend a nursing home in the Triangle area that actually provides a good service to the elderly? Of the one's I've researched, they are all universally terrible.

  • Caring May 7, 2010

    So sad that someone could do this to an elderly person!

  • bathroom_monkey May 7, 2010

    UNC Hospital did the same thing to my aunt in 1980.

  • pkrbkr-4ever May 7, 2010

    For what it's worth, my mother-in-law was there last year up until her death with Alzheimer's, but not in the Alzheimer's section as she was bed ridden or in wheel chair. My opinion of this place is not very favorable. This is no surprise that something finally become exposed. Leadership there is substandard to say the least. And that's giving them more credit than I think they deserve.
    But hey that's my opinion

  • raggy831 May 7, 2010

    if she was not suppose to have pain medication it seem to me that it would not be natural causes but the nursing homes fault