Suspect nurse in Auckland suspicious death case loses fight for name suppression

A nurse who remains a suspect in an open criminal investigation over the suspicious death of a woman at an Auckland hospital has lost her bid to have her identity permanently suppressed, reports New Zealand Herald court reporter Sam Hurley.

Harmeet Sokhi was Heather Bills’ primary nurse at Middlemore Hospital for the majority of the six weeks the 64-year-old was treated for burns following a fire at her Orakei home.

Last month, following an inquest in September, Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall ruled the death of Bills, who died from a massive insulin overdose, was no accident.

As part of her findings, Judge Marshall also imposed an interim name suppression order for Sokhi after she made an application for permanent name suppression.

Sokhi argued that publication of her name in association with the findings would infringe upon her character as a person and reputation as a nurse.

However, media organisations, including the Herald, and Bills’ daughter Michelle Maher opposed the application on the grounds of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Judge Marshall ruled in favour of the press and Maher, allowing the publication of Sokhi’s name after the interim suppression order lapsed late last Friday.

“The public have a right to be satisfied that vulnerable patients will be subject to a high standard of care in public hospitals,” Judge Marshall said.

“This means that the spotlight will turn on health professionals on occasions.”

Sokhi is still a nurse in the Counties Manukau DHB, and had been working in Middlemore’s intensive care unit following Bills’ death.

However, a doctor’s letter provided to Judge Marshall shows she is currently not working due to distress caused by the inquest.

Following Bills’ death on January 2, 2013 it was discovered that she suffered a suspicious and massive hypoglycaemia-related cerebral injury.

Her death was due to an overdose of insulin being “introduced to her body from the outside”.

Police suspected three medical workers, including Sokhi, of administering the fatal dose to Bills on the night of December 26-27, 2012.

The other two were healthcare assistants, Sharon Connors and Nirmala Salim.

Bills was not diabetic and had not been prescribed insulin at the time of her death.

Detective Senior Sergeant Ross Ellwood, the officer in charge of the criminal case, told the Herald after the inquest’s findings were released that police would be reviewing the findings and the police investigation.

“This is expected to take some time,” he said.

To date, no one has been charged in relation to Bills’ death.

However, during the inquest Ellwood expressed his views and said Bills’ death was the first and only one of its kind in New Zealand.

“I have my own view as to whether [Bills] was injected or not, but my view is not important, it’s what I can prove in court,” he said.

“I think she was injected. We’re looking at someone working in a hospital, potentially causing the death of a patient, and we can’t have that.”

Judge Marshall’s findings ruled that Bills had limited mobility, supporting a view that “the insulin must have either been handed to her or administered to her”.

“She could not get out of bed to source insulin herself,” she said.

“It appears from the evidence that opening a vial and preparing an injection would have been beyond her abilities but she may have been able to inject insulin if it was given to her.

“It is not possible from the evidence to say whether the insulin was administered by injection or intravenously.”

Judge Marshall said she was satisfied Bills was administered an overdose.

“And that the overdose must have been administered by someone who had access to insulin and the secure National Burns Centre,” she said.

“The cause of death was a non-accidental overdose of insulin.”

Bills had been pulled from the house fire during the evening of November 22, 2012, when neighbours braved the inferno to rescue her from an upstairs room of her home.

The fire was deliberately lit and she suffered burns to 35 per cent of her body.

While in hospital, Bills displayed suicidal thoughts and offered nurses cash to help her die, the inquest heard.

She was then treated at the burns centre and intensive care (ICU) as her condition improved at Middlemore.

But Bills’ health rapidly deteriorated on the night of December 26-27, confusing doctors who were “inattentionally blind” to the insulin killing her.

Maher said at the inquest that her mother had suffered a long and difficult mental illness, and wanted answers about her death.

She said her mother did not deserve to die in hospital in the way she did and her family deserved the right to know the causes and circumstances surrounding her death.


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