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Four Patients Given Wrong Drug at VA Hospital

July 19, 1993

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) _ Several staff members at a veterans hospital were transferred after four patients were given a mislabeled muscle relaxant instead of an antibiotic. One of the patients died, another is in a coma.

The two others were in good condition today, said John Phillips, director of the Omaha Veterans Administration Medical Center.

The drug’s maker said it warned hospitals in June about the possible mix-up but initially didn’t include VA hospitals.

The patients were given the drugs July 8.

Edna May Onak, 72, of Omaha died two days later. The relaxant had paralyzed her diaphragm and other muscles that control breathing, Phillips said.

Leland Goodnight, 76, of Stanton, Iowa, was in a coma and might not survive, his wife, Leola, said Sunday.

″If he ever did come back he wouldn’t remember anything,″ Mrs. Goodnight said. ″He’d be a vegetable.″

Goodnight, a World War II veteran, was in the hospital for treatment of a broken hip and subsequent infection, Mrs. Goodnight said.

Phillips confirmed Goodnight was in a coma. He declined to speculate whether the wrong medication was related to his condition or to say whether Goodnight had brain damage.

The FBI and the Veterans Affairs Medical Inspector’s office in Washington will investigate the mix-up, said Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., a Vietnam veteran who worked briefly as a pharmacist years ago.

″I’ve got one person dead, another on the edge and two others (who might have died), at a public hospital,″ he said. ″And they’re American veterans.″

A pharmacist, pharmacy technician and three nurses were transferred to administrative duties pending the outcome of the investigation, Phillips said.

Phillips has said errors apparently occurred during preparation and labeling of the post-surgical antibiotic, metronidazole.

Labels on the medication bags showed they contained the prescribed antibiotics when in fact they contained the muscle relaxant, mivacurium chloride, Phillips said.

Pharmaceutical maker Burroughs Wellcome of Research Triangle Park, N.C., hired a company to alert hospitals about the possible problem in June, following a fatal drug mix-up in Illinois in April. The company accidentally omitted VA hospitals, said spokeswoman Mari Toth.

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