She was a 46-year-old Army veteran hired by the Louis A. Johnson Medical Center in 2015 with no certification or license to care for patients. Reta Mays worked in the middle of the night, tending to elderly, onetime service personnel, sitting bedside and monitoring their vitals, including their blood sugar levels. Mays went room to room, largely unnoticed for three years on Ward 3A.
But as unexplained deaths mounted on the surgical unit between 2017 and 2018, the bespectacled mother of three — who had served in the Army National Guard and had deployed to Iraq and Kuwait — shifted from being a nurse’s aide to becoming a murder suspect.
She now has confirmed in court that she injected multiple doses of insulin in at least seven patients in the rural Veterans Affairs hospital a few hours away from the nation’s capital, causing the frail victims’ blood glucose levels to plunge in fatal fashion.
She did not say why when she pleaded guilty to multiple, second-degree murder charges. Her arrest and conviction ends to a two-year federal investigation in the mystery outbreak of deaths among vulnerable, aged vets who were not supposed to go so soon.
It also resurrects disturbing questions about the quality and safety of VA medical care, which is part of the nation’s sacred bond to assist service personnel who have given so much in their nation’s service.
VA investigators have promised to make public and rectify glaring, systemic problems that could have contributed to Mays’ killing spree.
As one news organization found of these lapses:
“USA Today reported in October that hospital staff missed opportunities to figure out what was happening, which may have risked veterans’ lives and limited evidence in the probe. The hospital didn’t adequately track insulin, and there were no surveillance cameras on the ward, according to employees. By the time a doctor alerted hospital supervisors of the deaths in June 2018, at least eight patients had died under suspicious circumstances. Several had been embalmed and buried, destroying potential evidence. One veteran had been cremated. Many of the bodies had to be exhumed for a medical examiner to perform autopsies.”
The Washington Post reported that families have been frustrated and infuriated that trained medical personnel, besides the doctor who blew the whistle on the vets’ deaths, failed to detect problems in how half the patient deaths in the crucial span of Mays’ killings occurred in such similar fashion:
“Elderly patients in private rooms were injected in their abdomen and limbs with insulin the hospital had not ordered — some with multiple shots, according to people familiar with the case. Within hours, the veterans’ blood-sugar levels plummeted.”
The patients were not diabetic. Mays was not supposed to have insulin access, nor was she authorized to administer it. The hospital has asserted that it acted swiftly, in detecting the deaths, reporting them, and getting Mays away from patients, doing so by checking her personnel records and finding that she had given false information to get hired.
Federal prosecutors took heat — from the attorney general, West Virginia’s senators, the VA chief, and families — for not moving faster against Mays. The case, they insisted, was tough due to evidence problems, with the lack of video camera or other documentation of the suspect taking or injecting insulin and with victims’ bodies buried and even cremated.
The Washington Post reported that the West Virginia case, sadly, is not unique for the VA system:
“Other criminal cases have engulfed the agency in the past year, intensifying questions about whether the country’s largest health-care system is doing enough to protect veterans in its care. A former osteopath at the VA hospital in Beckley, W.Va., was charged with multiple counts of sexual assault. A former VA pathologist in Fayetteville, Ark., pleaded guilty in June to manslaughter after officials say he misdiagnosed thousands of patients while using drugs or alcohol.”
This is not good. In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the ordeals that service personnel and their families must endure if they or their loved ones are seriously hurt by negligent medical care at a hospital or clinic run by one of the armed services or the VA. Congress and the president recently gave this important group of Americans half a loaf when it comes to a fundamental constitutional right — the chance for active duty personnel to seek justice in the civil courts if they suffer harms while receiving medical services in noncombat situations.
They now have a little more leeway to pursue malpractice claims, still in a military system and not in the civil justice system that protects civilians. But what will shield them and veterans from other serious, systemic, and persistent problems in the VA, including political machinations at the agency’s top and high-level, outside meddling from President Trump’s pals?
Vets and service personnel and their loved ones — like all of us — deserve safe, excellent, accessible, and affordable medical services. Health care is a right, not a privilege. To be fair, the VA wins many praises for the overall quality and safety of hits medical care. But, as with all medical providers, the agency needs to step up and sustain the vigilance needed to protect the vulnerable from negligent, abusive, and criminal wrongdoing. We’ve all got a lot of work to do here.