A nurse has been found guilty of ill-treating patients on a hospital stroke unit by giving them sedatives to "keep them quiet and compliant".
Catherine Hudson, 54, drugged two patients for an "easy life" during work shifts at Blackpool Victoria Hospital in April 2017 and November 2018.
Jurors at Preston Crown Court also convicted her of conspiring with a junior colleague, Charlotte Wilmot, 48, to administer a sedative to a third patient.
Hudson was cleared of ill-treating two other patients.
Judge Robert Altham, the Honorary Recorder of Preston, remanded Hudson into custody following the verdicts, which were reached after nearly 14 hours of deliberation. He said: "The sentence for Catherine Hudson plainly has to be a sentence of immediate custody. The only question is the length."
Judge Altham granted bail to Wilmot, who was also convicted of encouraging Hudson to drug a patient, but told her the "overwhelming likelihood" was that she too would receive an immediate custodial term.
Sentencing of Band 5 nurse Hudson, of Coriander Close, Blackpool, and assistant practitioner Wilmot, of Bowland Crescent, Blackpool, will take place on 13 and 14 December.
Student Nurse Alerted the Authorities
Police had been called in to investigate after a whistleblowing student nurse on a work placement said Hudson suggested administering unprescribed Zopiclone, a sleeping pill, to a patient. The student nurse was further troubled when Hudson commented: "Well she's got a DNAR (do not attempt resuscitation) in place so she wouldn't be opened up if she died or like if it came to any harm."
Zopiclone was potentially life-threatening if given inappropriately to acutely unwell patients, the court heard.
Prosecutors said a "culture of abuse" was revealed on the unit when police examined WhatsApp phone messages between the co-defendants and other members of staff. Hudson wrote about one of her victims: "I sedated one of them to within an inch of her life lol. Bet she's flat for a week haha xxx."
In a message exchange about an elderly male patient, Hudson wrote: "I'm going to kill bed 5 xxx." Wilmot replied: "Pmsl well tonight sedate him to high heaven lol xxx." Hudson said: "Already in my head to give him double!!"
The next evening, Hudson messaged Wilmot: "If bed 5 starts he will b getting sedated to hell pmsfl. I'll get u the abx (antibiotic) xxx." Later, Hudson wrote: "I've just sedated him lol he was gearing up to start (laughing emoji) xxx." Wilmot said: "Pmsl (tablet and hypodermic needle emojis) praise the lord Xxx."
Another set of messages between the friends showed an "antipathy" towards an elderly female patient and her daughter, the court heard. Hudson posted: "R u actually kidding me?? Surely there's no-one worse than her!! Which bay?? I'm in pink tonight, no d***heads had better b in there or they r being sedated (laughing emojis)!! Xxx."
Wilmot replied: "Yeah very f****** annoying. Give her the best sleep she ever had pmsl (laughing emojis) xxx." Hudson said: "Permanently (laughing emojis) xxx."
The woman's daughter made three complaints about the standard of care to the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (Pals) but received no reply, the court was told.
Defendants Claimed Messages Were "Gallows Humour"
Giving evidence, both defendants denied all the allegations and claimed the private messages were "banter" and not supposed to be taken seriously. They said the "gallows humour" was the venting of their frustrations at working in a chronically understaffed unit.
The stroke unit is at the centre of a separate and ongoing investigation by Lancashire Constabulary into the suspected murder of patient Valerie Kneale. Mrs Kneale, 75, from Blackpool, died on the unit on 16 November 2018 – a week after the first arrest in the sedation investigation.
A post-mortem examination found she died from a haemorrhage caused by a non-medical related internal injury.
Hudson was also convicted of stealing Mebeverine, a medication intended for an end-of-life patient. She pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing to conspiring with other colleagues to steal other drugs including Zopilcone and also a further offence of perverting the course of justice.
Wilmot had also pleaded guilty to conspiring to steal medication from the hospital.
Detective Chief Inspector Jill Johnston, of Lancashire Police, said: "Hudson and Wilmot treated the patients without care or compassion, laughing when they came to harm and drugging them to keep them quiet so that they could have an easy shift.
"The risks associated with these callous acts were obvious – inappropriately sedating elderly stroke patients could lead to added health complications and even death. They were both fully aware of the risks, which makes their behaviour even harder to comprehend.
"Everyone should be safe in hospital, should receive the care they need and be treated with dignity and respect. Sadly, our enquiries uncovered the actions of a nurse who was prepared to commit systematic and calculated offending, all whilst portraying herself as a role-model nurse. This could not be further from the truth."
Trish Armstrong-Child, chief executive of Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, said: "It is very clear from the evidence heard by the jury that inappropriate and unacceptable conduct and practices were taking place at the time and I want to say sorry to patients, families and other colleagues who were impacted by that.
"It's important now to reassure local people that Blackpool Teaching Hospitals has made significant improvements across a range of issues including staffing, managing medicine and creating a more respectful culture.
"Part of these changes have been to actively encourage anyone who comes into contact with the trust in any way to speak up if they see or hear anything that causes concern or they are not comfortable with in any way. That's critical to identifying issues quickly and putting improvements in place to ensure people feel safe in our care."