Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A review of Perfect Poison: A Female Serial Killer's Deadly Medicine by M.Willam Phelps

As regular blog readers know, I read a lot of true crime.  I find criminals fascinating, even though I hesitate to say I "enjoy" the stories about them because they always involve someone else getting hurt.  Kristen Strickland Gilbert is one fascinating criminal.  I had not heard of her before I purchased author M.William Phelps' book, Perfect Poison: A Female Serial Killer's Deadly Medicine.  Now that I've read the book, I may have to look at certain medical professionals with a more careful eye.

Who is Kristen Gilbert? 

Born in Fall River, Massachusetts on November 13, 1967, Kristen Heather Strickland is the elder daughter of Richard and Claudia Strickland.  Blessed with good looks and keen intelligence, Kristen did well in school and, in 1988, became a registered nurse.  But friends and loved ones noted that Kristen had a flair for dramatic behavior.  She would fake suicide attempts and lie excessively.  She was very manipulative.  She was also known to threaten people.  This behavior was evident from the time she was a teenager and continued into her adult years.

In 1988, Kristen Strickland married Glenn Gilbert and took his last name.  Kristen and Glenn did not have a happy or stable marriage, but they did manage to have a couple of sons with him.  She took a job at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she was known as a competent nurse.  She was even featured in VA Practitioner, a professional nursing magazine.

Sometime around the mid 1990s, Gilbert started an affair with James Perrault, a hospital police officer.  And around that time, patients on Gilbert's shifts started having fatal cardiac events.  Co-workers jokingly started to refer to her as the "Angel of Death".  After her patients died, Kristen was known to leave work early for dates with Perrault.  She was also known to make odd and inappropriate comments about people.  When one man was dying and his wife was justifiably upset, Kristen remarked that the scene was "hysterical"... as in funny!  And yet, she continued to work as a nurse at the VA hospital, tending to veterans who had served their country and sometimes killing them with a little extra epinephrine.

My thoughts

First off, I am delighted that Kristen Gilbert was eventually caught and is now doing time at the Federal Medical Center in Carswell, Texas.  It scares the hell out of me that someone entrusted with safeguarding other peoples' lives could get away with surreptitiously killing patients for so long.  Kristen Gilbert has the distinction of being one of the very few female serial killers in history.  She was convicted of claiming the lives of four men and may have been responsible for as many as 80 deaths and 300 medical emergencies.  As Phelps notes in his book, Gilbert had an incredibly high average of deaths on her shifts compared to her co-workers.  And for some reason, this aberration went unnoticed and unaddressed for a long time.

Given her disturbing history, which was well documented before she ever donned her first nurse's cap, I am shocked that Kristin Gilbert was able to enter the nursing profession.  Before she was a registered nurse, she was a nurse's aide.  During that time, she deliberately scalded an eight year old boy with mental retardation.  There were records of her making violent threats against people from the time she was a teenager.  While attending nursing school at Bridgewater State University, Gilbert faked a suicide attempt and had to undergo psychiatric treatment.  Even when she was a nurse, she did some time in several psychiatric hospitals.  Why she was allowed to continue working as a registered nurse, I will never know.

Kristen Gilbert's story is certainly interesting and disturbing, although it may make some people think twice about submitting to medical care.   VA hospitals already have a pretty bad reputation for being overcrowded and overextended.  My father and husband have always gotten decent care through them, but this tale will do nothing for the VA's image, especially since Phelps also writes about a hospital administrator who never actually had any real training for the job and remained in that role for years.

Phelps also covers the court case and includes photos of Gilbert and other players in this sad and scary tale of a nurse gone wrong.  Crazily enough, Gilbert's husband, Glenn, testified on her behalf even though she tried to poison him at one point in their relationship.  Gilbert's crimes were serious to warrant consideration of the death penalty and Glenn Gilbert asked the court to consider their sons, who would be devastated to lose their mother to the death chamber.  

I think Phelps does a good job with Kristen Gilbert's story and I recommend his book, though it did take me awhile to finish it.  Phelps does get somewhat repetitive at times, but the story is definitely interesting and tragic.  You may never think the same way about epinephrine again.






    

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