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Air Force Nurse Not Guilty of Killing Terminally Ill Patients

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on November 30, 2009 6:15 AM

Air Force nurse, Capt. Michael Fontana was acquitted recently by a military court following his trial for causing three patients to die after giving them excessive pain medication during end of life care. The Air Force nurse stood accused of ending the lives of the terminally ill patients under his care at Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio, Tx. The Captain was also acquitted of one charge of altering medical records.

Fontana hopes that his acquittal will aid others tasked with end of life care. One doctor testified at trial about his concern that this case could lessen doctors' willingness to use pain killers on the "gravely ill." This concern was echoed by Fontana's attorney, who said in closing arguments that a guilty verdict could open the "floodgates" to suits against nurses treating terminally ill patients. Additional compelling testimony likely came from Dr. Robert Fine, an expert in hospice care, who testified the medication given to patients Silvestra Orosco, 83, Ordie Despain, 87, and Dorothy Gray, 74, was not the cause of their deaths

AP further reports the military prosecution tried unsuccessfully to paint Fontana as "a rouge and arrogant nurse" who over-dosed his patients with fentanyl and morphine when "they were not dying quick enough." This case is comparable in some ways to that of Dr. Anna Pou. In 2007, a grand jury refused to indict Dr. Pou on charges of murder resulting from deaths of gravely ill patients under her care in the terrible days after hurricane Katrina. Both cases brightly highlight the difficulty the law, as well as medicine, can have with end of life care.

For his part, the Air Force nurse said, "My intention the whole time was to take care of dying patients." A member of the Air Force since 2006, Fontana served a tour of duty in Iraq in 2007. He hopes to return to nursing. 

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