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Old 17 January 2013, 08:45 PM
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Icon81 Las Vegas hospital workers make bets on patient deaths

Las Vegas Advisor's Question of the Day, January 17, 2013:

Q: I noticed that "Las Vegas" was a trending topic on Twitter the other day and when I clicked through to see what people were talking about, one tweet was a random item from one of those "weird news"-type sites that was talking about some scandal in the early ’80s alleging staff in a Las Vegas hospital were suspended for taking bets on when patients would die! Urban myth, or is there any truth to this story? (Surely not?)

A: It's not an urban myth, although it was news to us, too, until now.

Despite the scandal of alleged wagering and murder among staff at a Las Vegas hospital sounding like a lurid far-fetched plot dreamed up for TV, in fact the story broke in Las Vegas for real on March 13, 1980. Not surprisingly, the rumors soon grabbed national attention, thanks to the incredible subject matter and its dissemination by the Associated Press and UPI news agencies. Tabloids like the New York Post screamed headlines like "Angel of Death" and "Nurse Accused of Pulling Plug in Lethal Hospital Betting Scandal." Even Walter Cronkite, respected anchor of CBS' evening news, reported sensationally of employees "betting on death in a kind of ghoul pool."

In hindsight, it seems that the ingredients in this gruesome news cocktail, which involved the most trusted of professions evidently being corrupted beyond belief by the inexorably degenerate influence of "Sin City," were just too potent and enticing for the media or the public imagination to let go of. Even a coincidence of terminology was a gift to any hack -- so called "Death's Angel" supervising nurse Jani Adams worked what's commonly known as the "graveyard shift" -- while the flamboyant defense attorney she hired had some prior acting experience, including having played "the most evil spirit in the universe" in an episode of "Star Trek."

Hence, in spite of some of the earliest facts to emerge indicating that there was no evidence of foul play in the deaths of the alleged victim(s), nor of any betting occurring or money changing hands, the story was evidently just too good, or rather too bad, to inspire much in the way of measured professional journalism.

At first there were reports of six victims, although this figure was quickly revised to focus on just one -- an elderly man named Vincent Fraser, who was suffering from multiple severe health issues and whose condition had already been deemed terminal by no less than five physicians in the weeks before he finally died.

Nevertheless, one arresting officer reportedly threatened Adams with the gas chamber the day she was first taken in to custody, while another addressed her as "the murderess." Even then Nevada Governor, Robert List, who one would think would have been inclined to downplay the whole scandal and keep perceptions as neutral as possible until such time as any of the allegations could be substantiated, was quoted as saying that he "would like to think the whole thing a figment of somebody's imagination" but that "there seems to be a good deal of smoke and fire."

In reality, there was really very little of either. Tune in tomorrow for our understanding, decades after the fact, of what actually happened.
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Old 18 January 2013, 06:56 PM
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The "Death's Angel" Sunrise Hospital scandal -- Part II.

A: Below follows the concluding part to yesterday's QoD, concerning the sensational 1980 news story that nurses at a Las Vegas hospital were taking bets on when patients would die, and even taking lives as a result.

The story first broke when a nurse new to the night shift at Sunrise Hospital allegedly overheard some colleagues who were playing cards, including supervisor Jani Adams, discussing the death of a female patient. The newbie somehow received the impression that the woman's life-support machine had been "tampered with" and that an ailing male patient had been singled out as "next on the list" to die. The new recruit told of seeing money being placed into an envelope that was passed around, from which it was inferred that the nurses on the appropriately named "graveyard" shift were betting on who would die, and even intervening to hasten the process.

Stunned by the charges that instantly made lurid headlines across the country, the hospital administrator immediately suspended the seven employees under investigation and three weeks later a Nevada grand jury indicted registered nurse Jani Adams, 32, for allegedly cutting off oxygen to the critically ill Vincent Fraser, thereby causing his death.

Fraser's widow confirmed that she'd been asked to sign the mortuary-release form the day before her husband actually passed, thereby adding to the mounting speculation that his death had been predetermined, even though hospital staff explained that the practice was not uncommon in cases that were known to be terminal, especially when the next of kin was in circumstances like those of Mrs Fraser, who had no telephone nor any means of transportation and had to be collected and returned by police car anytime she came to the hospital.

Adams, who apparently had a rather brusque manner, did little to help her cause with the public. Known for her taste in the so-called "gallows humor" that's not unusual among professionals who deal with tragedy and death on a daily basis, she was prone to cracking inappropriate jokes like, "Well, I killed another one," when a patient passed on her shift. Although junior staff members could not positively attest to her turning off any patient's equipment prematurely, Adams was observed by more than one person doing something to life-support equipment and seems to have projected a pretty cold and callous attitude toward those patients whose prognosis was terminal.

In the absence of any additional facts, the flurry of speculation and sensationalism continued to build for some weeks and on April 2 Jani Adams was indicted and taken away in handcuffs. Four days later, the accused nurse finally broke her silence, detailing the harsh emotional realities of working in an intensive-care unit where you're constantly fighting to save lives, often against insurmountable odds, and explaining that the envelope of money that had fueled the whole gambling rumor had in fact been a collection taken in order to give a send-off to a nurse who was leaving. The more that the truth about Adam's background and professional reputation emerged, the more tempered the media's initially hysterical coverage of the case became, especially among local Las Vegas writers, but much damage had already been done.

Witnesses at the trial did nothing to establish a convincing case against her, with the doctor who signed the death certificate for Vince Fraser onfirming that, "I know of no clinical evidence that supports an allegation that this patient died of anything but natural causes." There was also no evidence of the alleged sweepstakes, nor of any gambling activities ever having taken place, and having heard all of the testimony, the judge dismissed the indictment on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to hold Jani Adams for trial. Even Fraser's widow, who'd seemingly helped fan the flames earlier on, told the media, "All this talk in the paper about my saying that all Vince had was a hernia is nonsense. I knew he was a very sick man. I knew he was probably going to die."

After the vindication of nurse Adams and the hospital, attention turned on the media, in particular the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which had basically led the witch-hunt, according to the reports we've read. Sunrise pathologist Daniel Wilkes was quoted as saying, "What we have here is a case of media malpractice ... If the newspaper hadn't rushed into print, there would have been no need for a flimsy indictment to protect the paper and the DA's office; and we would have been spared the enormous damage to Jani, the nursing staff, the hospital, and the community. What [the R-J] did to this community should never be allowed to be forgotten."

Evidently, Wilkes' wish was not granted, with the recent Twitter activity that this QoD submitter noted bearing witness to the fact that the story will evidently always be recalled in terms of its lurid, if apparently groundless, genesis. Even at the time, the dismissal of the case garnered zero network news coverage, and the tweet you read by the @Mindblowings Twitter, which has some 175,000 followers, simply stated that, "In 1980, a Las Vegas hospital suspended workers for betting on when patients would die." The last time we checked, it had been "retweeted" 134 times and "favorited" by 47 fellow tweeters.

As to the fate of nurse Adams, she eventually returned to her job, where she was evidently greeted with support by co-workers and the hospital administration. The current writer can attest to the fact that after more than a decade living here, your QoD submission was happily the first instance in which I'd heard of this story, but upon investigation we can only take the whole episode as a salutary lesson in objectivity and the potentially devastating power of both the media and of that crowd mentality that can potentially result in highly destructive witch hunts.

At the end of the day, nothing positive came of the whole incident, with the public left with lingering doubts about the integrity of all the nursing staff at Sunrise hospital, regardless of the outcome of the case or of whether they had anything whatsoever to do with Jani Adams or the ICU. As a result, some 300 or so of the staff actually felt compelled to defend themselves in an open letter sent to various newspapers, that began:

"I am a nurse at Sunrise Hospital.
I am the nurse who shared your apprehension when you delivered your baby...
I am the nurse who alleviated your children's fears...
I am the nurse whose adrenalin was overflowing and my pulse pounded when your condition worsened..."

It concluded:

"I was there when you needed me. Where are you going to be now that I need you?"

Most ironically of all, having opened this answer with our musing that the story reads like a bad daytime-TV drama plot, we discovered along the way that a prominent local entertainment agent did in fact attempt to negotiate a deal to have the story made into a television drama at the time. As far as we know, nothing ever came of this, which is probably just as well.
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Old 24 January 2013, 10:22 PM
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It's obviously inappropriate to bet on such a thing (and, obviously, even worse to allegedly kill to win) but dark humor is not uncommon for people who work in stressful fields, it's a coping mechanism.
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