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Tearful boss apologizes at inquiry for nurse who killed in nursing homes

The woman who hired a nurse who killed seven patients in a Woodstock., Ont , care home tearfully apologized on Friday at a public inquiry in St. Thomas, Ont.

‘It was devastating,’ says director of nursing about news of murdered patients

Former nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer was sentenced to eight concurrent life terms for killing eight people under her care. A public inquiry headed by Justice Eileen Gillese began this week in St. Thomas, Ont. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

The woman who hired a nurse who killed seven patients in a Woodstock., Ont , care home tearfully apologized on Friday at a public inquiry in St. Thomas, Ont.

Helen Crombez, the Caressant Care home's former director of nursing, said she knew Elizabeth Wettlaufer made frequent medication and nursing errors, but had no idea she was deliberately injecting patients with insulin to kill them.

"It was devastating," Crombez said of her own reaction to hearing the news that Wettlaufer had confessed to killing patients at her home and another in London, Ont. 

"It was the most terrible thing that could have happened to anyone who works in long-term care, who loves her residents, who always wanted the best care possible," she said.

Crombez was the second witness to testify at the public inquiry into long-term care in Ontario.

The inquiry was established after Wettlaufer was sentenced to eight concurrent life terms for killing eight people, and is headed by Justice Eileen Gillese. It's set to hear from 17 parties over nine weeks.

Crombez said the news of the killings affected her as well as the staff and residents of the nursing home.

"It changed my life. I haven't been the same since. I'm so sorry that it happened. I can just imagine what the families went through."

During her 30-year career at the Caressant Care home, her goal was to offer residents comfort and peaceful, natural deaths as their lives came to a close, she said.

"To know that Beth committed these crimes, it's just awful," she said. 

Her tearful apology also brought Justice Gillese to tears. Gillese thanked Crombez for her candor.

Opioids stolen from home

Earlier in the day, the inquiry heard that police officers in Woodstock were asked to canvass drug dealers in that city in April 2013 to find out if someone was stealing opioids from the Caressant Care nursing home and selling them on the street. 

It appeared a box for discarded narcotics had been tampered with and a gap created so someone could slide a hand or tongs in to retrieve the drugs, Crombez, told the inquiry. 

Police were also going to check spouses and other family members of employees at the home to see if they knew anything about the missing drugs. 
Caressant Care's former director of nursing Helen Crombez was emotional while testifying about insulin not being given to a patient whom Wettlaufer would later try to kill. (Kate Dubinski/CBC)

There were no cameras in medication rooms where insulin and narcotics were stored in the home. 

But the home was given permission by its head office to install a hidden camera to catch the thief in the act. 

"There was never a camera installed but we kind of talked like there was, so it would possibly hinder someone from taking more medication," Crombez said. "I would say things like 'candid camera, you never know.'" 

The performance review rated Wettlaufer's skills on a scale out of four. 1 (poor), 2 (provisional), 3 (competent) and 4 (commendable). Wettlaufer gave herself a 3 out of 4 for 'medication administration' skills. (Kate Dubinski/CBC)

Crombez also went over an incident in March 24, 2008, in which Wettlaufer didn't give a patient his insulin.

Crombez cried, saying that in retrospect, Wettlaufer was likely withholding insulin from some patients so she could use it on others to kill or harm them.

Less than a year later, that patient, Wayne Hedges, 57, was one of the people Wettlaufer tried to kill between September and December 2008. She pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of Hedges.  

Performance deemed 'competent'

In her first job performance review at Caressant Care, in June 2007, Wettlaufer was given marks of "competent" or "commendable." Crombez rated her medication administration skills as needing improvement.

Wettlaufer gave herself a rating of "competent" for medication administration skills.  

Crombez said there were two medication rooms in the 163-bed facility, and a variety of people had keys to them. 

One had a small window in the door and the other didn't. 

Wettlaufer made a variety of medication errors, though the inquiry has heard she wasn't the only nurse to make such errors. In fact, the home's top administrator testified that such errors were common, partly because of the volume of patients and medications to be given, and because nursing staff were overworked. 
As the director of nursing at the home, Crombez was in charge of hiring nurses and is also expected to testify about medication procedures. 

Wettlaufer injected her patients with insulin to kill them. She also had drug problems herself, and in a previous job, she was found almost passed out while on shift after overdosing on a narcotic. 

About the Author

Kate Dubinski

Reporter/Editor

Kate Dubinski is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in London, Ont. You can email her at kate.dubinski@cbc.ca.