Army Hospitals Struggle to Stop Drug Overdoses Since June, there has been a rash of accidental overdoses at Army hospitals, including at least six that have resulted in deaths. The hospitals have implemented new policies, including a ban on drinking in barracks.
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Army Hospitals Struggle to Stop Drug Overdoses

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Army Hospitals Struggle to Stop Drug Overdoses

Army Hospitals Struggle to Stop Drug Overdoses

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The U.S. Army is also facing some questions about its past behavior. after the scandal over conditions at Walter Reed and other military hospitals, here's another problem: a lot of soldiers are getting a lot of prescription medications, sometimes very potent medications. Since June, there's been a rash of overdoses at Army hospitals, and some of the soldiers died.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: The last time Susan Nichols brought her husband home from Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, she knew something was very wrong. He couldn't even play with their six-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. Instead, he just watched them play basketball with the neighborhood kids.

Ms. SUSAN NICHOLS: He was constantly dizzy, or he just couldn't handle being out because of the pain or the medication just knocked him out completely and he couldn't even walk.

SHAPIRO: Susan Nichols tells the story while sitting outside on the patio at her home in San Antonio.

Ms. NICHOLS: And the last day that we all saw him, he could barely stand up straight without leaning against a wall to prop him up.

SHAPIRO: Two days later, Sergeant Robert Nichols was found dead in his room at Brooke Army Medical Center.

The autopsy reports that he died of an accidental drug intoxication from the pills he'd been prescribed by his Army doctors. Some of those drugs mixed together made a deadly combination. There were 11 medications found in his body, including potent pain killers to treat his physical wounds from an explosion in Iraq and drugs to ease the nightmares, insomnia and memory loss caused by his PTSD and traumatic brain injury.

Susan Nichols says that several times before he died on January 22, Robert Nichols asked his doctors to reduce his medications.

Ms. NICHOLS: Because he felt like he was a zombie and he could only function for a small portion of the day.

Brigadier General JAMES GILMAN (Commander, Brooke Army Medical Center): Any of these events raises your awareness, your sensitivity, causes you to reanalyze everything that you're doing.

SHAPIRO: Brigadier General James Gilman is commander at Brooke Army Medical Center. He says Nichols' death is still under investigation, so he can't discuss details. But he says the Army has made changes to try to prevent a repeat of that kind of death.

General GILMAN: We obviously went back and looked at medications and whether there are additional steps to take to make it safer. It would be unthinkable not to reassess everything that you're doing when an event like this happens.

SHAPIRO: Robert Nichols' widow says multiple doctors gave her husband multiple prescriptions. Now, for each patient, there's one doctor in charge of all prescriptions. Drugs are given out in small doses, instead of a two or three-week supply at once. And at the beginning of March, soldiers were told they could no longer drink in their barracks rooms, since alcohol can make a fatal mix with these medications.

The new rules apply at all of the Army's 35 Warrior Transition Units set up to treat injured soldiers.

Lieutenant General ERIC SCHOOMAKER (Army Surgeon General): We're trying to interrupt the root causes of what might be causing the problem.

SHAPIRO: Lieutenant General Eric Schoomaker is the Army surgeon general. He put the policies in place after 15 recent deaths at Army hospitals - at least six were the result of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs, including the death in September of Sergeant Gerald Cassidy of Fort Knox. He may have been alive - but unconscious - for two days or more in his room without anyone checking on him.

Soldiers in the new outpatient Warrior Transition Units live in their own rooms in barracks on base, or sometimes even off base in their own apartments. At some bases, there are now surprise searches of barracks rooms for alcohol and attempts to restrict who can keep and drive a car. These moves have angered some injured soldiers, but the drug overdoses have continued.

General Schoomaker spoke during a break at a recent congressional hearing about the medications themselves, which are more powerful than in the past.

Lt. Gen. SCHOOMAKER: There're a lot of medications out there that people aren't aware of that may be much more dangerous than they think they are, especially if they're used in combinations with others. Then if you add to that, you know, a psychological challenge or a traumatic brain injury that might make it difficult to remember the dosing and the like. So we're using as many tools as possible to try to limit them.

SHAPIRO: There's one person who doubts the alcohol ban will stop these problems: Susan Nichols. Her husband told her that Brooke tried to crack down on drinking in the barracks late last year.

Ms. NICHOLS: But what wound up happening was the soldiers in the Warrior Transition Units would go off post and drink. And there was a rise in DWIs off post, which was considered bad PR.

SHAPIRO: After the recent ban, some soldiers started hiding their beer and alcohol in the rooms of injured Marines. They weren't covered by the Army policy. But on Tuesday, the day NPR asked about it, the alcohol ban at Brooke was put into place for the Marines, too.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Joe Shapiro continues his reporting tomorrow when he'll tell us about changes about the Army has made in how it cares for wounded soldiers.

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