Angels of Death: 8 Medical Murderers

Serial murderers can come from any background and work in any profession. However, medical careers make it easy for someone who is inclined to murder to carry it out, and to cover it up. And to do it again and again.

The Doctor of Poison

Michael Swango is believed to have poisoned dozens of patients under his care. Despite a troubled medical school record and a 1985 conviction for poisoning, he was able to find employment in several states and one other country until his 1997 arrest for murder. Nurses had noticed Dr. Swango's patients died at an unusually high rate as early as 1983, but their suspicions were brushed off, and Swango changed jobs and locations often. He also forged documents and falsified his resume to gain employment, and hospitals didn't check his background thoroughly. His reputation caught up with him in 1994. Swango was under FBI surveillance, but fled the country before an arrest warrant could be served. Dr. Swango had found employment in Zimbabwe, where no one had heard of him. There, the pattern of unexplained deaths continued and Swango was arrested. He absconded before his trial, and was on his way to new employment in Saudi Arabia when US officials arrested him for fraud during a layover in Chicago. Swango pleaded guilty, and was incarcerated when murder charges were filed in 2000. He pleaded guilty to three murders in exchange for avoiding a death sentence or extradition to Zimbabwe. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The Center of Attention

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Beverley Allitt had a history of drawing attention to herself by faking injuries or illness while growing up in Britain. In 1991, she was working in Children's Ward 4 at Grantham and Kesteven Hospital in Lincolnshire. An unusual number of emergencies began to happen during a 15-day period, in which a child would suffer a heart attack or other crisis and then either died or was revived at the last minute. A couple of the children were transferred to other hospitals, where they recovered. An autopsy of one child revealed a high level of potassium, leading to more autopsies that showed high levels of insulin or other unnecessary drugs. 25 suspicious episodes involving 13 children were identified. They only had one thing in common: Beverly Allitt was on duty during every one of them. She was arrested several months after the investigation began and charged with four counts of murder and 11 counts of attempted murder. Allitt was diagnosed with Munchausen's syndrome and Munchausen's by Proxy syndrome. In the former, a person fakes or inflicts injury on illness on himself to get attention; in the latter, the injury is inflicted on someone else for the same reason. Allitt was convicted in 1993 and was sentenced to 13 life sentences. She is incarcerated at a high-security mental hospital.

Helpling Them Die

00MFMalevre.jpgNurse Christine Malèvre worked at a lung hospital in Mantes-la-Jolie, France. She was charged with the deaths of seven patients in 1997 and 1998. Malèvre had written a book entitled My Confessions, in which she described how she "helped" patients who were terminally ill and in pain. She confessed to police that she had terminated as many as 30 patients out of compassion, but she later recanted and said she had only caused two deaths and two others were accidents. Malèvre was convicted of six murders in 2003 and received a ten year sentence. Her case sparked a nationwide discussion on euthanasia in France, where assisted suicide is illegal.

The Night Shift Gang

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Waltraud Wagner was a nurse's aide at Lainz General Hospital in Vienna, Austria. She worked the night shift on a geriatric ward where people died from natural causes at a higher rate than the rest of the hospital. That rate went up between 1983 and 1989 when Wagner and three colleagues killed between 42 and 300 patients. The first death was a woman who asked Wagner to end her suffering. Wagner obliged by injecting her with morphine and found she enjoyed killing. She recruited her coworkers, Stephanija Mayer, Maria Gruber, and Irene Leidolf to carry out more murders. The four killed not only patients who were dying, but those who were annoying or hard to care for as well. The death rate was noticed, but the murderers weren't caught until 1989 when a doctor overheard the group discussing a recent killing. After arrest, the four admitted some murders and implicated each other for the rest. Wagner, who originally boasted to police that she was responsible for 39 murders, recanted and would admit to only ten by the time their trial began in 1991. Waltraud Wagner was convicted of 15 murders and 17 attempted murders, and drew a life sentence. Leidolf also received a life sentence, and Mayer and Gruber each received 15 year sentences. All have been now released from prison.

The Fasting Cure

00hazzard.pngLinda Hazzard claimed to have a medical degree as a "fasting specialist". She treated patients in Olalla, Washington by starving them, sometimes to death. Patients were given only weak broth as nourishment and powerful enemas that left them weak and delirious. Then Dr. Hazzard would have them make out their wills, with her clinic as beneficiary. At least a dozen patients died under her care, until an investigation by the family of Claire Williamson resulted in the doctor's arrest in 1911. Williamson weighed less than 50 pounds when she died. Hazzard was found guilty of manslaughter, served two years, then moved to New Zealand where she again practiced as a "fasting specialist." She returned to Washington State in 1920 and built the sanatorium she had dreamed of -and tried to finance with her dead patient's money. However, since she was barred from practicing medicine, the building was named "a school of health". Hazzard died in 1938 when she decided to try her own fasting cure.

Money as a Motive

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Anna Marie Hahn was the first woman to die in Ohio's electric chair, and only the second woman executed by the state. She immigrated from Germany in 1929. After divorcing her second husband, Hahn began working as a private live-in nurse for elderly German men in Cincinnati. Her patients tended to die and leave their fortunes to Hahn, which helped pay for her gambling habit. The string of unusual deaths ended in 1937, when police found a suspicious amount of arsenic in George Obendoerfer's body. An investigation revealed 11 unusual deaths among Hahn's patients, and a survivor who caught her trying to poison him. Hahn was convicted of one murder, that of Jacob Wagner in 1937. Her own 12-year-old son testified against her at the trial! She was executed in 1938.

The Fast Worker

00MForvillemajors.jpgFrom 1993 to 1995, 130 patients died while nurse Orville Lynn Majors was on duty in the ICU at Vermillion County Hospital in Clinton, Indiana. An investigation into the unusual death rate turned up this vital statistic:

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From March 1, 1993 to March 31, 1995, (the dates of Majors employment), a death occurred every 23.1 hours that Majors was working. When he was not working (during the same period of time) one death occurred every 551.6 hours.

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As soon as Majors was suspended and relieved of his nursing license in 1995, the ICU death rate fell to pre-1993 levels. 79 witnesses testified at his trial, in which the judge ruled that the death rate statistics were not admissible because Majors was only on trial for six murders. However, he was convicted on other evidence, including potassium chloride and syringes found at his home. Many of the victims are believed to have been injected with potassium chloride, a poison notoriously hard to identify. Majors was convicted in 1999 and received a sentence of 360 years in prison.

The Hero of Children

00MFgenenejones.jpgGenene Jones was a pediatric nurse in Texas who wanted to be the hero, to save a child's life. In order to do this, Jones first had to endanger the child's life, but she wasn't always successful in saving that life. While working at Bexar County Medical Center Hospital, other nurses noticed that children with normal illnesses tended to have seizures or cardiac arrest when Genene Jones was on duty. Some autopsies showed the children had been given heparin or Dilantin which was not prescribed. Hospital officials resisted an investigation, but transferred Jones out of pediatrics. She reacted by resigning. She began working at a pediatric clinic in Kerrville, Texas. The same pattern of seizures and unexplained crises occurred in children under Jones' care. An investigation found 47 suspicious deaths while Jones was at Bexar County Medical Center. She was indicted on one charge of murder and charges of injuring other children. Another indictment was later filed on an additional injury charge. Two trials on the various charges were held in 1984, both winning convictions against Jones, and she was sentenced to a total of 159 years. She has been denied parole once, and will be eligible again in 2009.

If your favorite medical murderer isn't featured in this list, that's probably because he or she will be featured in part two coming next week.

Update: Parts two and three of this series are now available.

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16 Facts About Migraines
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Unless you suffer from migraines yourself, you may think that having a migraine means having a really bad headache. But debilitating head pain is only one part of the medical condition called migraine disorder. Other common symptoms are nausea, dizziness, fatigue, sensitivity to light and sound, and even temporary blindness. The symptoms and causes of migraine look different in different patients, and researchers are only now beginning to understand what the condition is and how to treat it. Here are some of the most enlightening facts we know about migraine disorder.

1. IT'S THE THIRD MOST COMMON DISEASE IN THE WORLD.

Even if you don’t suffer from migraine, chances are you know someone who does: The disorder affects 14.7 percent of the population, or one in seven people, around the world. In the U.S. alone, roughly 39 million people are affected by the condition. Chronic migraine (experiencing at least 15 headache days per month over a three-month period, with over half being migraines) is more rare, impacting about 2 percent of the world population.

2. WOMEN SUFFER MORE THAN MEN.

Of the one billion people on Earth who have migraine disorder, three-fourths are women. Medical experts suspect this has to do with the cyclical nature of female hormones. According to research presented earlier in 2018, NHE1, the protein that regulates the transfer of protons and sodium ions across cell membranes, is a crucial component of migraine headaches. NHE1 production likely fluctuates a lot more in women than in men. When scientists looked at the brains of lab rats, they found that NHE1 levels were lowest when estrogen was at its peak. In general, female rats also had four times the amount of NHE1 in their brains as males. If the same holds true for people, that could explain why women are not only more likely to suffer migraines in the first place, but why they experience them more frequently and more intensely, and have more difficulty responding to treatment.

3. MIGRAINE TRIGGERS VARY WIDELY.

For doctors and sufferers, migraine triggers can be a source of confusion. They vary from patient to patient and often come from unexpected sources that have no relation to each other. Stress, too much or too little sleep, dehydration, alcohol, and caffeine are some of the most common triggers. Some people get migraines after eating specific foods, like cheese, and others are sensitive to changes in weather conditions like barometric pressure. Some people manage their migraines by pinpointing and avoiding triggers.

4. FOR SOME, AURAS ARE A WARNING THAT A MIGRAINE IS COMING.

Before the nausea, dizziness, and splitting head pain begin, auras warn some people that a migraine is on its way. Less than 25 percent [PDF] of migraine sufferers experience distorted senses, such as numbness or tingling in the hands or face, or blotches of light or darkness disrupting their vision. Auras usually occur 10 to 30 minutes before the migraine develops and last from five minutes to one hour.

5. SYMPTOMS CAN INCLUDE TEMPORARY BLINDNESS …

Unlike migraine with aura, retinal migraine is limited to one eye. Symptoms range from seeing twinkling stars to partial or complete loss of vision. The same eye is almost always affected, and the person typically regains their sight after 10 to 20 minutes.

6. … AND LOSS OF LIMB FUNCTION.

One of the rarest, and scariest, subtypes of migraine is hemiplegic migraine. People with this variant can experience weakness, numbness, tingling, or loss of motor function in parts of one half of their body, including their arm, leg, or face. Though sensations usually dissipate within 24 hours, they can last anywhere from one hour to several days. Sometimes they’re accompanied by typical migraine symptoms, such as head pain, but they can also occur on their own.

7. KIDS GET MIGRAINES TOO.

Migraine isn’t just a problem for adults—up to 10 percent of all school-aged kids are affected by the disorder, with reported cases coming from children as young as 18 months. According to the documentary Out of My Head (2018), migraine is the third most common reason for child emergency room visits. The symptoms of migraine in kids are similar to what’s seen in older patients: They may experience intense head pain, sick feelings, distorted vision, and sensitivity to sound and light. The major differences are that child migraines often develop suddenly and are shorter than they are in adults. In children, it’s not uncommon for the nausea and abdominal pain to feel worse than the actual headaches. Just as some sufferers don’t experience their first episodes until after puberty, some children with migraine grow out of it. According to one study, migraine symptoms disappeared completely in 23 percent of former child sufferers by age 25.

8. MIGRAINE MAY BE HEREDITARY.

For most people with migraine disorder, it runs in the family. Anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of migraine sufferers report having at least one family member who has it as well. If one parent has migraine, there’s a 50 percent chance their child will eventually have to live with migraine—and that risk shoots up to 75 percent when both parents have the condition.

9. MANY VETERANS RETURN HOME WITH MIGRAINES.

Genetics isn’t the only factor that contributes to someone’s chance of having migraine disorder. One study found that after a 12-month deployment in Iraq, 36 percent of veterans exhibited symptoms of migraine. The cause often stems from head or neck trauma sustained from explosions, falls, or other accidents during their service. While post-traumatic migraine goes away in most patients within a few months, in some cases it can develop into a chronic condition.

10. MIGRAINE IS LINKED TO THE "SECOND BRAIN" IN YOUR GUT.

In addition to the part of our nervous system that responds to outside stimuli, humans have an enteric nervous system: the part responsible for regulating digestion. Some medical experts believe that migraine is closely tied to this “second brain.” People with migraine are twice as likely to have IBS as people with tension headaches. Abdominal migraine, where the pain is concentrated in the stomach rather than the head, is one form the condition takes. It's most often seen in children, but it can affect adults as well.

11. DESPITE THE HIGH COST OF MIGRAINE DISORDER, RESEARCH IS UNDERFUNDED.

In 2017, the National Institutes of Health invested $22 million in migraine research. Asthma research received $286 million, breast cancer $689 million, and diabetes $1.1 billion.

12. THE DISORDER COSTS US UP TO $13 BILLION ANNUALLY.

Though migraine isn't life-threatening like these other conditions, it is widespread enough to have a negative impact on society as a whole. Workers with migraine often end up taking a lot of time off from their jobs, which can cost their employers. According to Out of My Head, it’s estimated that 113 million work days are missed annually due to migraine, adding up a to $13 billion loss.

13. MIGRAINE MAY HAVE INSPIRED PARTS OF ALICE IN WONDERLAND …

In the famous children’s book, Alice drinks a liquid that makes her grow many times her size and eats a cookie that shrinks her to tiny proportions. Migraine sufferers may recognize themselves in these passages. Possible symptoms of the disorder include micropsia and macropsia, or perceiving objects to be much smaller or larger than they really are. Some theorize that Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll suffered migraines and wrote his experiences into his story. The book’s connection to migraine is so famous that today the related symptoms are commonly known as Alice in Wonderland Syndrome.

14. … AND PLAGUED A FOUNDING FATHER.

Another famous person from history who likely suffered from migraines was Thomas Jefferson. His symptoms could last for weeks and often appeared during stressful times in his life. There was even an episode that coincided with one of the most important nights of his political career. One night in June 1790, he invited Federalist Alexander Hamilton and Republican James Madison to his home for a dinner party in the hopes of getting his peers to agree on a location for the new U.S. capital. Despite dealing with lingering head pain from a migraine, he successfully brokered the compromise that landed the capital at its current spot on the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia. In return, Madison agreed that he would not block Hamilton's plan for the federal government to take on state war debt, thus helping establish the young nation's credit.

15. MIGRAINE IS LINKED TO DEPRESSION.

In the U.S., up to 40 percent of people with migraine also have depression. Risk of anxiety, bipolar disorder, and panic disorder are also higher in migraine sufferers. Researchers are still figuring out the connections between mental illness and migraine. While the anticipation of painful symptoms can cause depression and anxiety in some people, experts believe that mental illness is often more than just an effect of living with migraine. The production of the brain chemical serotonin is involved in both migraine and depression. That’s why tricyclic antidepressants designed to increase serotonin levels are sometimes prescribed to treat migraine.

16. A NEW SHOT CAN TREAT MIGRAINE.

Many migraine therapies from the past few decades have been the result of trial and error. Medications designed to treat other conditions, such as antidepressants, epilepsy medicine, and botox, have all been prescribed to migraine sufferers, with mixed results. Earlier in 2018, the first-ever shot made to treat migraines specifically secured FDA approval. The shot, which blocks a peptide linked to migraine, is taken once a month and can improve symptoms or completely eliminate them in some cases. Before the new injection came along, the only other migraine-specific medications patients had to choose from were triptans, which stimulate the neurotransmitter serotonin. They can't prevent migraine, but they can help dampen symptoms by reducing inflammation and constricting blood flow. According to Out of My Head, triptans were first approved more than two decades ago—so new medication options are long overdue.

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11 Facts About the Appendix
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Despite some 500 years of study, the appendix might be one of the least understood structures in the human body. Here's what we know about this mysterious organ.

1. THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS CALLED IT THE "WORM" OF THE BOWEL.

The human appendix is small, tube-shaped, and squishy, giving ancient Egyptians, who encountered it when preparing bodies for funerary rites, the impression of a worm. Even today, some medical texts refer to the organ as vermiform—Latin for "worm-like."

2. THE APPENDIX SHOWS UP IN LEONARDO DA VINCI’S DRAWINGS.

The earliest description of a human appendix was written by the Renaissance physician-anatomist Jacopo Berengario da Carpi in 1521. But before that, Leonardo da Vinci is believed to drawn the first depiction of the organ in his anatomical drawings in 1492. Leonardo claimed to have dissected 30 human corpses in his effort to understand the way the body worked from mechanical and physiological perspectives.

3. IT'S ABOUT THE SIZE OF A PINKY FINGER.

The appendix is a small pouch connected to the cecum—the beginning of the large intestine in the lower right-hand corner of your abdomen. The cecum’s job is to receive undigested food from the small intestine, absorb fluids and salts that remain after food is digested, and mix them with mucus for easier elimination; according to Mohamad Abouzeid, M.D., assistant professor and attending surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center, the cecum and appendix have similar tissue structures.

4. CHARLES DARWIN THOUGHT IT WAS A VESTIGIAL ORGAN …

The appendix has an ill-deserved reputation as a vestigial organ—meaning that it allegedly evolved without a detectable function—and we can blame Charles Darwin for that. In the mid-19th century, the appendix had been identified only in humans and great apes. Darwin thought that our earlier ancestors ate mostly plants, and thus needed a large cecum in which to break down the tough fibers. He hypothesized that over time, apes and humans evolved to eat a more varied and easier-to-digest diet, and the cecum shrank accordingly. The appendix itself, Darwin believed, emerged from the folds of the wizened cecum without its own special purpose.

5. … BUT THE APPENDIX PROBABLY EVOLVED TO HELP IMMUNE FUNCTION.

The proximity and tissue similarities between the cecum and appendix suggest that the latter plays a part in the digestive process. But there’s one noticeable difference in the appendix that you can see only under a microscope. “[The appendix] has a high concentration of the immune cells within its walls,” Abouzeid tells Mental Floss.

Recent research into the appendix's connection to the immune system has suggested a few theories. In a 2015 study in Nature Immunology, Australian researchers discovered that a type of immune cells called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) proliferate in the appendix and seem to encourage the repopulation of symbiotic bacteria in the gut. This action may help the gut recover from infections, which tend to wipe out fluids, nutrients, and good bacteria.

For a 2013 study examining the evolutionary rationale for the appendix in mammal species, researchers at Midwestern University and Duke University Medical Center concluded that the organ evolved at least 32 times among different lineages, but not in response to dietary or environmental factors.

The same researchers analyzed 533 mammal species for a 2017 study and found that those with appendices had more lymphatic (immune) tissue in the cecum. That suggests that the nearby appendix could serve as "a secondary immune organ," the researchers said in a statement. "Lymphatic tissue can also stimulate growth of some types of beneficial gut bacteria, providing further evidence that the appendix may serve as a 'safe house' for helpful gut bacteria." This good bacteria may help to replenish healthy flora in the gut after infection or illness.

6. ABOUT 7 PERCENT OF AMERICANS WILL GET APPENDICITIS DURING THEIR LIFETIMES.

For such a tiny organ, the appendix gets infected easily. According to Abouzeid, appendicitis occurs when the appendix gets plugged by hardened feces (called a fecalith or appendicolith), too much mucus, or the buildup of immune cells after a viral or bacterial infection. In the United States, the lifetime risk of getting appendicitis is one in 15, and incidence in newly developed countries is rising. It's most common in young adults, and most dangerous in the elderly.

When infected, the appendix swells up as pus fills its interior cavity. It can grow several times larger than its average 3-inch size: One inflamed appendix removed from a British man in 2004 measured just over 8 inches, while another specimen, reported in 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Pathology, measured 8.6 inches. People with appendicitis might feel generalized pain around the bellybutton that localizes on the right side of the abdomen, and experience nausea or vomiting, fever, or body aches. Some people also get diarrhea.

7. APPENDECTOMIES ARE ALMOST 100 PERCENT EFFECTIVE FOR TREATING APPENDICITIS.

Treatment for appendicitis can go two ways: appendectomy, a.k.a. surgical removal of the appendix, or a first line of antibiotics to treat the underlying infection. Appendectomies are more than 99 percent effective against recurring infection, since the organ itself is removed. (There have been cases of "stump appendicitis," where an incompletely removed appendix becomes infected, which often require further surgery.)

Studies show that antibiotics produce about a 72 percent initial success rate. “However, if you follow these patients out for about a year, they often get recurrent appendicitis,” Abouzeid says. One 2017 study in the World Journal of Surgery followed 710 appendicitis patients for a year after antibiotic treatment and found a 26.5 percent recurrence rate for subsequent infections.

8. AN INFECTED APPENDIX DOESN’T ACTUALLY BURST.

You might imagine a ruptured appendix, known formally as a perforation, being akin to the "chestbuster" scene in Alien. Abouzeid says it's not quite that dramatic, though it can be dangerous. When the appendix gets clogged, pressure builds inside the cavity of the appendix, called the lumen. That chokes off blood supply to certain tissues. “The tissue dies off and falls apart, and you get perforation,” Abouzeid says. But rather than exploding, the organ leaks fluids that can infect other tissues.

A burst appendix is a medical emergency. Sometimes the body can contain the infection in an abscess, Abouzeid says, which may be identified through CT scans or X-rays and treated with IV antibiotics. But if the infection is left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the abdomen, a serious condition called peritonitis. At that point, the infection can become life-threatening.

9. SURGEONS CAN REMOVE AN APPENDIX THROUGH A TINY INCISION.

In 1894, Charles McBurney, a surgeon at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, popularized an open-cavity, muscle-splitting technique [PDF] to remove an infected appendix, which is now called an open appendectomy. Surgeons continued to use McBurney's method until the advent of laparoscopic surgery, a less invasive method in which the doctor makes small cuts in the patient's abdomen and threads a thin tube with a camera and surgical tools into the incisions. The appendix is removed through one of those incisions, which are usually less than an inch in length.

The first laparoscopic appendectomies were performed by German physician Kurt Semm in the early 1980s. Since then, laparoscopic appendectomies have become the standard treatment for uncomplicated appendicitis. For more serious infections, open appendectomies are still performed.

10. AN APPENDIX ONCE POSTPONED A ROYAL CORONATION.

When the future King Edward VII of Great Britain came down with appendicitis (or "perityphlitis," as it was called back then) in June 1902, mortality rates for the disease were as high as 26 percent. It was about two weeks before his scheduled coronation on June 26, 1902, and Edward resisted having an appendectomy, which was then a relatively new procedure. But surgeon and appendicitis expert Frederick Treves made clear that Edward would probably die without it. Treves drained Edward's infected abscess, without removing the organ, at Buckingham Palace; Edward recovered and was crowned on August 9, 1902.

11. THE WORLD'S LONGEST APPENDIX MEASURED MORE THAN 10 INCHES.

On August 26, 2006, during an autopsy at a Zagreb, Croatia hospital, surgeons obtained a 10.24-inch appendix from 72-year-old Safranco August. The deceased currently holds the Guinness World Record for "largest appendix removed."

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