Healthcare News & Insights

Nurse faces death penalty: Did she inject patients with bleach?

A nurse is accused of killing five of her patients by injecting bleach into their dialysis tubes. Kimberly Saenz is on trial for capital murder charges in the five deaths. Saenz pleaded not guilty. If she’s convicted, prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.

At the time of the deaths, Saenz had been working as an entry-level vocational nurse at DaVita Dialysis in Lufkin, Texas.

The charges were filed about a year after a local fire official wrote an anonymous letter to the state health department. In the April 2008 letter, the official raised a red flag over a series of suspicious incidents at the clinic which resulted in paramedics being called to the scene.

Among other things, the letter detailed a two-week period in which 16 patients had to be transported by ambulance from the clinic.

Within days, investigators were at the clinic — and discovered that paramedics had been called to the clinic 30 times that month. Nineteen people had to be transported to the hospital (seven of them with cardiac complaints) — and four people had died after treatment at the clinic. For reference, in the previous 15 months, ambulance crews had been called only twice.

On April 28, 2008, inspectors were on-site when two patients were stricken ill — and others said they had witnessed Saenz inject bleach into dialysis tubes being used by two patients. Saenz was sent home, the local police were called and the clinic was shut down. The two patients later died.

Subsequent investigation found traces of bleach in various equipment used to treat some of the patients who got sick or died. DaVita had used bleach in various concentrations to clean both internal machinery parts and chairs used by patients. Staffers were supposed to use reactive agents to confirm that any bleach residue had been removed and that the cleaned items were safe for patient use.

More details into the investigation are hard to come by — the court’s put a gag order on all parties involved. But Saenz’s lawyers have noted previously that their client has no criminal record and no apparent motive for trying to kill her patients. Her lawyers have suggested that the clinic was sloppy about its disinfectant procedures and that she’s being used as a scapegoated for systemic problems.

However, prosecutors paint Saenz’s history in less generous terms, noting a history of prescription painkiller abuse, addiction, and having been fired from four prior health care jobs. Prosecutors say she also lied on a more recent employment application, in violation of her bail agreement.

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  1. […] Saenz’s attorney had argued during the trial that the deaths were the result of chronic problems with improper cleaning of equipment at the clinic, and that Saenz was being used as a scapegoat. […]