COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — From ICU nurses who characterized a former Mount Carmel doctor as “very caring” to a family member’s tearful recollection of his brother’s final moments, the fourth week of testimony in the murder trial of Dr. William Husel came to an end Thursday.
Forty witnesses have taken the stand thus far in the murder trial of Husel, 46, who has pleaded not guilty to murder charges in the deaths of 14 ICU patients who were under his care at the former Mount Carmel West from 2015 to 2018.
While prosecutors allege that Husel ordered excessive, fatal doses of the painkiller fentanyl for his patients, defense attorneys contend that the doctor was providing comfort care for critically ill patients as they were removed from the ventilator.
“There is no such thing as a medical murder case. And that this is not a murder case, and it’s far from it,” defense attorney Jose Baez said during the trial’s opening statements. “William Husel was exercising compassion to his patients and tried to free them of pain and let their last moments on Earth be ones of peace.”
This week marked the first time in the trial where family members of Husel’s alleged victims, some of whom have filed wrongful death lawsuits against Mount Carmel, testified to the jury about the days leading up to their loved ones’ deaths.
Albert Bellisari was among them, and he testified Thursday about the death of his 69-year-old younger sister Joanne Bellisari, who died in May 2015 while under Husel’s care.
After receiving 1,000 micrograms of fentanyl while being removed from a ventilator, Joanne died, according wrongful death lawsuit filed by Albert in January 2019.
“We gathered around and said prayers, asked God to take her,” Albert said. “And we all went home.”
As Mount Carmel staff prepared for Joanne’s extubation, a doctor administered what he told Albert was “comfort medicine,” Albert testified. At the time, Albert thought nothing of it, but he later discovered that it was a 1,000-microgram dose of fentanyl.
Although Albert testified that he understood his family’s decision to remove Joanne from the ventilator meant she had a low chance of survival, he said he still had a glimmer of hope that she could recover.
He said he did not want Joanne to be in pain during the extubation but felt as though his desire, as a Catholic, to allow her to have a natural death “without any outside influence” was not met.
“I felt that she was sinking, and one nurse, or somebody, said ‘I think she might be dead already’; I just wanted to let her die a natural death,” Albert said.
Joining the list of relatives who testified was Geraldine Brown, the partner of Brandy McDonald’s mother. On Tuesday, Brown described her relationship with Brandy McDonald, a 37-year-old who died under Husel’s care, “like she was my own.”
Fourteen minutes after receiving what family members said was “a lethal dose of fentanyl” ordered by Dr. Husel on Jan. 14, 2018, McDonald died, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by McDonald’s family.
Brown, who was asked about McDonald’s hospital care, testified that no one from McDonald’s family requested that Brandy McDonald receive pain medication.
Just a day before Brown testified, a former ICU nurse Jamie Bourke who administered McDonald the 1,000-microgram dose of fentanyl testified that Dr. Husel, who ordered the painkiller, was a “very caring” and “amazing doctor” who saved McDonald’s life when he urged her family members to bring her to the ICU.
“He, in essence, saved her life at that point because he was like ‘Bring her, bring her now,’ and intubated her in two minutes,” Bourke said.
Over the course of the 37-year-old patient’s stay at Mount Carmel, Bourke said the condition of McDonald, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and suffering from severe acidosis, had significantly worsened.
Bourke said she administered the fentanyl because she anticipated the palliative extubation to be “incredibly distressing and horrible” for McDonald.
“My intent was that she would not feel herself suffocate to death when she was removed from the ventilator,” Bourke said.
Several other former Mount Carmel ICU nurses, including Wesley Black, Jordan Blair and Kathleen McDowell, all testified that they received no formal training on proper narcotics dosing, including fentanyl.
“Sometimes it may be even more than you’re used to giving, but this is sort of a painful process in the dying process,” Black said while describing what Mount Carmel staff told him about painkiller dosing during palliative extubations.
Although Black said the pharmacy at Mount Carmel rejected painkiller orders for 75-year-old Rebecca Walls, one of Husel’s patients who received 1,000 micrograms of fentanyl, Husel allegedly assured Black multiple times that “the order was good to go.”
Black, who was ordered by Husel to administer 2,000 micrograms of fentanyl to Melissa Penix, said his intent in giving the 82-year-old patient the dose was to relieve her pain — never to hasten her death or hurt her, he testified.
“She had a great feeling of suffocation and not being able to breathe so there was an anxiety portion of this as well that seemed very specific to this patient,” Black said.
Black, Blair and McDonald also spoke about Husel’s admirable reputation at Mount Carmel West, where he was known for teaching and mentoring other staff members about ways to improve patient care.
“Just a genuine guy when he was talking to family members and powers of attorney about how sick the patients were,” Blair said. “I believe he cared for his patients deeply.”
In perhaps the week’s most emotional testimony, Lynn Marshall, brother of James Timmons, 39, who died under Husel’s care in October 2018, testified that he was “crying ecstatically” while he visited his brother in the ICU.
Marshall said Mount Carmel staff flip-flopped in their assessment of Timmons, who arrived at the hospital suffering from compartment syndrome, which Dr. Wesley Ely said in earlier testimony deprives blood flow to your muscles.
When Marshall first arrived, he said a nurse told him he could return to his West Virginia home that night as Timmons would likely recover. Later than evening, a different nurse told him the opposite — that he “shouldn’t go far because his brother wasn’t gonna make it through the night,” Marshall said.
On each of nurses’ three requests to switch Timmons’ code status to do not resuscitate, Marshall refused.
“I told them to save him; I wouldn’t give them a DNR order,” Marshall said.
Despite his initial reluctance, Marshall eventually agreed to change his brother’s code status, as he said nurses made it seem as though he had no other option but to remove his brother from life support.
Ely, a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University and pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist, testified at the start of the trial that Timmons, who had substance abuse disorder which led to compartment syndrome, could have survived had he not received the 1,000-microgram dose of fentanyl.
“He could recover from that and live a life of recovery, like thousands, millions of people do all over the world, and I don’t understand why he couldn’t be given that chance,” Ely said.
The trial, which attorneys have said could last at least eight weeks, is expected to resume Monday at 9 a.m.