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Nursing home deaths become political fodder in coroner's race
By Charles Keeshan | Daily Herald Staff

Marlene A. Lantz

 

David John Bachmann

 

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Published: 10/13/2008 3:49 PM

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What happened to residents of a McHenry County nursing home who died under suspicious circumstances in 2006, and whether a nurse intentionally killed them, is now a matter for a court of law.

But the deaths also could become a matter for the court of public opinion when it comes to the heated, and increasingly hostile, race for McHenry County coroner.

For months, Democratic challenger David Bachmann has used the nursing home case as political fodder against incumbent Marlene Lantz, claiming the five-term Republican should have done more to prevent deaths that have led to criminal charges against a nurse and her former supervisor.

Bachmann, 48, of Hebron, accuses Lantz of failing to recognize a sharp rise in the number of deaths at the Woodstock Residence in early 2006, a failure he believes may have caused more deaths at the home.

"Had Miss Lantz gone out to the nursing home in April or early May, she would have caught this," said Bachmann, a former funeral home director.

Lantz, however, says there was no reason for her office to suspect anything was amiss. Each of the patients who died under what now is believed to be suspicious circumstances was in hospice care for a terminal illness.

No doctors reported unusual circumstances with the deaths and, unlike law enforcement, Lantz said, she and her staff had no information that another employee of the home had raised suspicions about the deaths.

"Because no one came to us with any concerns we were comfortable with those deaths," she said. "I was not alarmed at the time."

Bachmann argues that the numbers themselves should have been cause for alarm. After seeing 36 deaths in 2004 and 2005 combined, the home had 36 in just the first nine months of 2006.

"That's the red flag," he said. "It's very clear. The numbers tell the story."

But do they?

Lantz, 61, of McHenry, notes that though the 2006 death numbers were high compared with the three previous years, they were not far out of line with what the nursing home reported in 2002, when 28 deaths occurred. And it is not unusual, she said, for nursing homes to see significant fluctuations year to year.

"When we see an increase in the number of deaths, it doesn't mean someone is killing someone," she said. "The numbers go up and down."

Earlier this year, authorities charged former Woodstock Residence nurse Marty Himebaugh with multiple felony counts of neglect, alleging she gave patients unnecessary or excessive doses of morphine or other drugs. The patients named in the charges later died.

The charges do not accuse Himebaugh, 57, of Lake in the Hills, of killing the patients. But a report from a state investigation into the deaths indicates fellow nurses told authorities that one of their co-workers intentionally overdosed patients who required more work or the nurse believed had lived long enough.

Himebaugh's former supervisor, Penny Whitlock, 58, of Woodstock, also faces neglect and other charges, including one that alleges she told Himebaugh she could serve as an "Angel of Death."