Elizabeth Wettlaufer: The Nurse as Villain

For nine years, a Canadian nurse was killing elderly patients in her care and nobody thought there was anything worth looking into. Her atrocious record as a nurse was covered up by successive employers and her union protected her.

Elizabeth Wettlaufer was born in Woodstock, Ontario in 1967. She became a registered nurse and, in 1995, she was hired at the Geraldton District Hospital in northern Ontario.

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Only months into the job, she was found in an impaired state and, when questioned, admitted to stealing an anti-anxiety drug and taken it in an apparent suicide attempt. She was fired and the Ontario Nurses’ Association filed a grievance on her behalf. The hospital agreed to change her record to show Wettlaufer resigned for health reasons.

The cover-ups had begun.

She worked for a non-profit called Christian Horizons, but the organization found out she was in a same-sex relationship and that didn’t fit with its religious teachings.

She applied for a post at Caressant Care in Woodstock and was hired, in 2007, without an interview. Caressant Care is a for-profit company that operates 10 long-term nursing and retirement residences.

There were dozens of complaints lodged against Wettlaufer by Caressant patients and their families and numerous reprimands for medication errors but she kept her job.

Eventually, in 2014, she was fired and again the nurse’s union supported her. After negotiations, her record showed she resigned and she was given a $2,000 settlement and a letter of recommendation. Once more, her gross failures as a caregiver were swept under the rug.

At the time it was not known that she had already murdered seven of her patients.

Elizabeth Wettlaufer is a woman with some mental health issues. She has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, a serious malady that involves impulsivity, anger, anxiety, and wild mood swings. Along with these behaviours often go broken relationships, suicidal ideation, and substance abuse.

Because of under-staffing at the nursing home Wettlaufer sometimes worked double shifts. At night, she would have to care for up to 100 patients alone. It was a stressful situation, doubly so for someone with fragile mental health.

Then, as The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports “To relieve the pressure, she said she tried to kill two patients ‘just to see what happens.’ ” She injected her patients with insulin, but the dosage proved to be non-fatal. She experimented until she found a lethal mixture of quick- and slow-acting insulin.

Just before Christmas 2007, she killed her first victim Maurice (Moe) Granat, 84. His death raised no concerns. He was a frail, old man and frail old men die all the time in nursing homes. Also, nobody kept track of the insulin supply like they did with narcotics.

Next it was Gladys Millard, 87, and then 95-year-old Helen Matheson. And, so it went until she had killed seven patients and attempted to kill two others.

Armed with her letter of recommendation, Wettlaufer was hired by another eldercare home where she killed Arpad Horvath, 75.

Throughout this whole sad saga nobody noticed anything untoward. There were plenty of signals but they were ignored.

The family of one victim asked for the coroner to investigate, but the coroner refused. Too much trouble. Old people die. Get over it.

The Ontario Nurses’ Association went to bat for her even though there was plenty of evidence she was mentally ill and a danger to her patients. But the union chose to look the other way.

Management at care facilities knew they had an incompetent nurse on staff but kept her on; high-quality nurses were hard to come by at the salary the homes were offering.

Wettlaufer made a partial confession to a pastor and his wife. They prayed for her. She told someone at Narcotics Anonymous that she was killing people but that person wrote her off as an inveterate liar. There were others she revealed her story to and none of them did anything.

Elizabeth Wettlaufer would have been able to carry on murdering people in her care had she not put an end to it herself.

In September 2016, Nurse Wettlaufer checked herself into the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. She was looking for help with her drug and alcohol abuse.

She confessed to staff that she was killing patients and, finally, someone listened. Police were called in and Wettlaufer was charged with eight counts of murder, four counts of attempted murder, and two of aggravated assault. She entered a guilty plea and received a life sentence, which, in Canada, is 25 years.

The government of Ontario struck a public inquiry into the case. After two years of testimony, the inquiry’s report said no individuals, with the exception of Wettlaufer, were to blame, but that the entire system of caring for the elderly was at fault.

Justice Eileen E. Gillese, who headed the inquiry, wrote “It appears that no one in the long-term care system conceived of the possibility that a health-care provider might intentionally harm those within their care and, consequently, no one looked for this or took steps to guard against it.

“Fundamental changes must be made — changes that are directed at preventing, deterring, and detecting wrongdoing of the sort that Wettlaufer committed.”

Will the necessary changes be made?

The Conservative government of the province of Ontario is on a cost-cutting mission; public health agencies have been shuttered and dozens of nurses laid off. The prospects for improving care of the elderly don’t look good.

  • In October 2017, Ontario’s Ministry of Health forced another Caressant facility to stop accepting new patients because of deficiencies. Ministry officials said “there is a risk of harm to the health or well-being of residents of the home or persons who might be admitted as residents.” The facility began accepting new admissions again 16 months later after being cleared by the ministry. At the same time, two other homes for the elderly were ordered to stop admissions over cleanliness, safety, and under-staffing issues.
  • In June 2019, former nurse Niels Högel received a life sentence after being convicted of murdering 85 patients. His victims were in two German hospitals and he is thought to be that country’s most prolific serial killer in peacetime.
  • Elizabeth Yardley is a professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, England. She told the BBC that medical professionals who are serial killers “feel a sense of ownership, possession, and control over their patients. They feel entitled to harm and kill them.”
  • “Inquiry: Union Deal Buried How Wettlaufer Was Fired from First Job.” Jonathan Sher, London Free Press, June 6, 2018.
  • Nursing-Home Murderer Secured New Jobs after Being Fired for Medication Handling, Documents Show.” Kelly Grant and Tu Thanh Ha, Globe and Mail, June 5, 2018.
  • “Nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer Took Advantage Of Ontario’s Long-Term Care System To Kill: Report.” Paola Loriggio, Canadian Press, July 31, 2019.
  • “History of Non-Compliance’ at Fergus Caressant Care Home.” CBC News, October 5, 2017.
  • “5 Things Nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer Suggests Might Have Stopped Her Killing.” Kate Dubinski, CBC News, August 11, 2018.
  • “Why Would a Nurse Become a Serial Killer?” George Wright, BBC News, June 15, 2019.