Doctors devote their lives to saving lives and spend their days treating the sick and injured. Yet when a doctor fails to save a patient’s life they are rarely blamed or considered responsible for a patient’s death.
In 2019, however, one doctor from Kansas was found guilty after it was determined that his actions directly contributed to a 32-year-old patient’s death. Now, a Kansas judge is sending a message to doctors across the country with his severe sentence…
The 911 Call
On July 23, 2015, the Newton Police Department in Newton, Kansas, received a frantic 911 call by a woman named Burgundy Castillo. During the call, Castillo told them that she found her boyfriend unconscious and unresponsive in his home and that he needed medical help.
An ambulance was immediately sent to the address and police rushed to the scene. Once at the home, they found 32-year-old Nick McGovern unresponsive like Castillo had described and had him rushed in an ambulance to Wichita’s Wesley Medical Center.
While still at the home, police spoke to a man who claimed that McGovern had taken 25 to 30 methadone tablets that day. Doctors at the medical center fought desperately to bring the 32-year-old back from his overdose, but McGovern tragically died the next day on July 24, 2015.
The Autopsy Report
According to the autopsy report, McGovern died of a mixed overdose of alprazolam and methadone. While overdosing on drugs like alprazolam and methadone are common, it was strange that McGovern had access to such a large supply of the prescription.
A Large Supply
Normally, police would have immediately questioned how and where McGovern was getting his supply of prescription drugs since most doctors refuse to prescribe such large amounts of the drug since prescriptions of highly addicting drugs are being closely monitored in recent months.
However, investigators already knew the answer to that question. McGovern had received a prescription for alprazolam, an anti-anxiety drug, and methadone, a drug used to wean addicts off heroin, from 57-year-old Steve Henson, a doctor based in Wichita, Kansas.
According to investigators from the Drug Enforcement Agency, they had been actively investigating Henson since October of 2014. At that time, the DEA received a complaint from a Wichita pharmacist about Henson. The pharmacist claimed that he believed Henson was over-prescribing controlled substances as pain meds.
According to the DEA, the pharmacist had discovered that other pharmacies had stopped filling the doctor’s prescriptions. During the following investigation, investigators found evidence that Henson wrote prescriptions in return for cash, post-dated prescriptions, and wrote them without medical need or without even performing a medical exam to McGovern and other patients.
In the wake of McGovern’s death, Henson was charged with a number of crimes including conspiracy to distribute prescription drugs outside the course of medical practice, unlawfully distributing oxycodone, methadone, and alprazolam, money laundering, obstruction of justice, presenting false records to investigators, and unlawfully distributing methadone and alprazolam, the use of which resulted in the death of a victim.
The charges were extremely serious and appropriate considering the opioid epidemic ravaging the country. “We are dealing with an epidemic,” Wichita US Attorney Stephen McAllister said in a statement. “Nationwide, more than 70,000 Americans died in 2017 from drug overdoses.”
“That is more than all the American casualties during the war in Vietnam,” McAllister added. In 2017 alone, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that around 47,600 Americans died of opioid overdoses, which was a staggering 13 percent higher than in 2016.
Cracking Down On Prescriptions
As a result, doctors and pharmacists across the country have been carefully monitored to try and keep the dangerous and highly addictive prescription drugs off the streets. As the opioid epidemic has continued to ruin thousands of lives, the repercussions for those abusing their access to the drugs has only gotten more severe.
A Direct Link
In court, a judge heard how McGovern had become addicted to opioids after a physician sent him to be treated by Henson, who was considered a pain specialist. “Before you, he wouldn’t even take an aspirin for a headache,” Denise McGovern, the victim’s mother, said to Henson in court.
Made Into An Addict
“He was sent to you by his physician. You made him into an addict,” the devastated mother added. In court, Judge J. Thoman Marten heard how Henson regularly overprescribed the addictive and dangerous drugs to people like McGovern for cash and prosecutors argued that his overprescription likely led to addiction.
In court, Henson even admitted that he armed himself with a handgun while seeing patients proving that he knew his patients were desperate addicts yet still continued to prescribe them large amounts of the pills without even asking them any questions or performing a medical exam.
Henson’s defense argued that the doctor only ever wanted to help his patients and always acted in their best interest. However, Judge Marten didn’t agree. In October of 2018, Marten found Henson guilty of most of the charges brought against him as it was clear he abused his position of trust as a licensed physician.
A Life Sentence
“You were exacerbating a problem; you were not treating it,” Marten said in court. The in March of 2019, Marten announced he had determined Henson’s sentence and everyone in the courtroom audibly gasped as sentenced Henson to life in prison for overprescribing opioids that lead to a patient’s death. “I have sentenced people to life before,” Marten told Henson. “They were people who took guns and shot people.”
Sending A Message
“I want this case to send a message to physicians and the health care community,” McAllister said in a statement. “Unlawfully distributing opioids and other controlled substances is a federal crime that could end a medical career and send an offender to prison.”
Severe Punishment For A Severe Problem
“The prosecution of cases involving a health professional’s misuse of medical expertise and authority is extremely important to fight the opioid epidemic,” McAllister added. “For any doctors, pharmacists or nurses who disregard their oath and distribute powerful drugs illegally to enrich themselves, the message today is that they will be prosecuted to the full extent allowed by federal law.”
Justice Is Served
While McGovern’s family is still devastated by their loss, they were happy that justice was served and hope other families will be spared the pain they’ve endured because of the outcome of the case. “No sentence will bring Nick back to us, but if Steven Henson had treated Nick instead of enabling him, he would have still been with us today,” said Castillo, who is still grieving over the loss of her boyfriend, who was a father-figure to her children.