Review - The Nurses Are Innocent: the Digoxin Poisoning Fallacy

The Nurses Are Innocent: the Digoxin Poisoning Fallacy
By  Gavin Hamilton, M.D.
Published by Dundurn,  2011, 240 pages

Between June of 1980 and March of 1981, The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto saw a sudden and unusual increase in the number of babies dying in the cardiac unit; an increase of 625% over the same time frame of the past few years.  And although babies in the cardiac unit of a major hospital are, by definition, perilously ill, the sharp spike in the number of deaths was alarming.

The babies all appeared to have a lethal level of the heart drug digoxin in their blood and all had died under suspiciously similar circumstances.  The authorities began to wonder if a serial murderer was at work, and the prime suspects were the nurses on the ward. Eventually, Susan Nelles was charged with First-Degree Murder for four of the deaths, but a preliminary hearing concluded that there was not enough evidence to take the case against her to trial. All four murder charges were dropped and she ultimately received $190,000 in compensation from the Ontario government. Another nurse, Phyllis Trayner, lived the rest of her life under a cloud of suspicion as the murderer, but was never charged or convicted. The babies’ deaths has remained a mystery.

London doctor Gavin Hamilton outlinines his own theory as to what happened to those babies: a toxic substance used to manufacture pharmaceutical rubber leached out into the medication given to the babies, slowly poisoning the already seriously ill babies to death. The toxin, known as MBT, could easily be mistaken for high digoxin levels during autopsies, which lead the authorities to believe that the babies had been deliberately overdosed.

Dr. Hamilton makes a compelling case for his theory. His own experiences over a long medical career with patients and allergic reactions are carefully documented, and he is diligent in making the case that MBT has had wide-spread consequences world wide over the last 30 years.

There is no real narrative here; this book lays out the author’s thesis in detail, reading more like an essay than a story.  The writing is a bit challenging at times, for those of us who did not go to medical school, but Hamilton is able to make the hard parts understandable and interesting. He writes like a doctor, not a narrator, so it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the medical jargon and level of detail. However, it’s still worth the trouble to slow down and figure it out. Dr. Hamilton’s efforts to exonerate the nurses of Sick Kid’s Hospital make for an interesting and thought-provoking read.

(Out of 4 Stars)

Ruth McGregor is a London resident who barely passed Grade 11 Chemistry.