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Angels of Death: 8 Medical Murderers

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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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Bite Helper
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technology
New Gadget Claims to De-Itch Your Mosquito Bites
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Bite Helper

Summer can be an itchy time for anyone who wants to enjoy the outdoors. Mosquitos are everywhere, and some people are particularly susceptible to their bites and the itching that comes with them. A new product aims to stop the suffering. Bite Helper, reviewed by Mashable, is designed to stop your bites from itching.

Place the pen-like device over your swollen bite and it will begin to emit heat and vibrations designed to quell the itch. It’s meant to increase blood flow around the area to alleviate your pain, heating your skin up to 120°F for up to 45 seconds. It’s the size of a thin tube of sunscreen and is battery powered.

Most dermatologists advise applying cold to alleviate itching from insect bites, so the question is: Will heating up your skin really work? Bite Helper hasn’t been clinically tested, so it’s hard to say for certain how effective it would be. There has been some research to suggest that heat can help increase blood flow in general, but decrease histamine-induced blood flow in the skin (part of the body’s normal response to allergens) and reduce itching overall. In a German study of wasp, mosquito, and bee stings, concentrated heat led to a significant improvement in symptoms, though the researchers focused mostly on pain reduction rather than itching.

Bite Helper’s technique "seems like a legitimate claim" when it comes to localized itching, Tasuku Akiyama, who studies the mechanisms of itching at the University of Miami, tells Mental Floss. "The increase in the blood flow may increase the rate of elimination of itch mediator from the area." However, before that happens, the heat might also make the itch a little worse in the short-term, he cautions. This seems to be borne out by user experience: While Mashable's reviewer found that using the device didn’t hurt at all, his daughter found it too hot to bear for more than a few seconds.

If the device does in fact relieve itching, though, a few seconds of pain may be worth it.

Bite Helper is $25 on Amazon.

[h/t Mashable]

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The Body
11 Facts About the Thumb
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The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it's the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don't know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.

When it comes to the fingers on your hand, the thumb definitely does its own thing. Thumbs only have two bones, so they're obviously shorter, and they play a very important role that no other finger can claim; thanks to their unique saddle-like joint shape, and a little muscle known as the abductor pollicis brevis, you can bend and stretch your thumbs opposite your fingers to grip things. This is why they're known as "opposable thumbs." To bring you these 11 facts about the thumb, Mental Floss spoke with three experts on this unique digit: Barbara Bergin, an orthopedic surgeon in Houston; Loren Fishman, medical director of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, in NYC; and Ryan Katz, attending hand surgeon at the Curtis Hand Center, located at the Medstar Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore.

1. OPPOSABLE THUMBS MAY HAVE FREED UP OUR ANCESTORS' MOUTHS FOR LANGUAGE.

The evolution of a thumb helped our ancestors evolve to be better at defense, allowing for throwing and clubbing activities. Moreover, Fishman says, it may have even contributed to our cognitive function. "Some say this is why we have language," he says, "because we can hold things in our hands and [therefore] use our mouths for something else—such as discussing the functions of the thumb."

2. THUMBS HAVE THEIR OWN PULSE.

You might have noticed that medical professionals take a pulse with the middle and index finger. The reason is because there's a big artery in the thumb, the princeps pollicis artery, and arteries pulse, making it difficult to feel a pulse in a neck if you're using your thumb.

3. THE THUMB SEPARATES US FROM OTHER ANIMALS. MOSTLY.

"The thumb is wonderful. It evolved in such a way that we can use it to do so many amazing things, and it's one of the things that separates us from other animals," Bergin says. A handful of other animals, mostly primates, have opposable thumbs, or toes, as the case may be. These include orangutans, chimpanzees, a phylum of frogs known as phyllomedusa, some lemurs, and giant pandas—although their thumb-like apparatus is really just an extra sesamoid bone that acts like a thumb.

4. TOES CAN BECOME THUMBS.

If you should lose a thumb, fear not, says Katz. "It can be rebuilt by surgeons using your big toe." This specialized surgery uses microvascular surgery techniques to transfer your big toe to your hand, where it will function almost exactly as your thumb did. "The toe is then brought to life by sewing together small arteries and veins under a microscope," Katz says, a complicated surgery that has become vastly more sophisticated over the years. The second toe can be used too, as you can see in this medical journal, but we warn you: It's not for the faint of heart.

5. … BUT IS A THUMB WORTH LOSING A TOE OVER?

It may not seem like a big deal to lose one thumb—after all, you've got another one. But Katz cites the American Medical Association's "Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment" [PDF], which states your thumb is so important that a complete amputation "will result in a 40 percent impairment to the whole hand." In fact, they claim that it would take "a complete amputation of the middle, ring, and small fingers to equal the impairment of an amputated thumb."

6. IT'S BETTER THAN HAVING YOUR HAND SEWN TO YOUR FOOT.

Katz also points out that "there used to be a common surgical procedure for thumb reconstruction, where the patient's hand was sewn to their foot for a period of time." This procedure was called the Nicoladani procedure, after the German surgical innovator Carol Nicoladoni. "It was a precursor to transplant surgery and plastic or reconstructive surgery as we know it today," he says.

7. YOUR THUMB MAKES AN ASTONISHINGLY WIDE VARIETY OF MOTIONS.

Other than pinching and grasping, Katz points out that the thumb "translates, rotates, and flexes all at once." This coordinated set of motions provides strength and dexterity. "Thus it's the thumb that allows us to easily pen an essay, turn a nut, pick up a coin, or button a shirt."

8. THAT DEXTERITY ALSO MAKES IT FRAGILE.

The thumb may appear to only have two knuckles, but it actually has a third, right above the wrist. This is called the first carpometacarpal joint. If that starts to hurt, or gets big enough to look like a bump or a mass, you may have carpometacarpal joint disorder (CMC), a common condition that is partly genetic and partly from repetitive use, according to Bergin. "You can get arthritis in the other joints, too, but this one is the most debilitating," she says. "First it becomes painful, and then you lose the ability to use it." Surgery can help with the pain, but it won't restore full mobility.

9. PAIN IN YOUR THUMB MAY REQUIRE LIFESTYLE CHANGES.

Bergin suggests small lifestyle changes so you don't need to grip anything too hard can make a huge difference, such as buying milk jugs with handles or using an electric toothbrush. "There are a lot of things we can do [to help] on a daily basis that shouldn't affect our quality of life," she suggests.

10. SWIPING RIGHT MIGHT BE DANGEROUS.

While we generally associate thumb arthritis with older people, Bergin says she now sees it in people in their forties and even thirties. Other studies have suggested that frequent phone use can be damaging. "There must be a genetic component to premature wearing of the thumb," she says. If it runs in your family, it's a good idea to be proactive and try to avoid repetitive gripping activities.

11. WHAT IT MEANS IF YOUR THUMB IS NUMB.

If instead of pain you're experiencing numbness of the thumb that extends to your index and middle fingers, you may be showing early symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. Fortunately, this isn't an emergency. "The condition takes a long time to become a big problem" Bergin says. People can sometimes help the condition by wearing wrist braces and getting physical therapy. If you just can't take it, "you can get surgery at any point if you failed to improve with bracing," she says. The surgery can reduce mobility, but it should take away the numbness and pain.

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