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Nurse Connected Dots in Tylenol Murders

Wednesday December 12, 2007
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Every time Helen Jensen, RN, BSN, peels away the protective plastic stripping and breaks through the metallic seal safeguarding the pills in a bottle of pain relievers, her mind leaps back 25 years to when her nursing intuition linked three deaths to a bottle of Tylenol and likely saved many others.

Born of Jensen's talent for listening and her nursing intuition, her hunch saved hundreds of Chicagoland residents from dying the same horrific death that claimed the lives of seven people who swallowed cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules.

Jensen, who retired nine years ago from her post as Arlington Heights (Ill.) village nurse, clearly remembers the dinner-time telephone call to her home Sept. 29, 1982, asking her to please come to Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights because something strange was going on.

Village paramedic Adam Janus, 27, died unexpectedly that afternoon. Shortly thereafter, two other family members died while at his home making funeral arrangements, explains Jensen, who now sits on the village Board of Trustees.

Leaving her dinner half-eaten and wearing shorts, Jensen dashed to the hospital, where she encountered a gaggle of medical experts and Janus' Polish-speaking widow Theresa standing largely ignored in the corner of the room.

"I introduced myself and asked her to tell me what exactly happened," Jensen says. "Her brother-in-law was there, and he interpreted for me while she told me the story."

Adam Janus had been feeling ill and left work early. On the way home, he stopped at the grocery store and purchased a bottle of Tylenol. After eating a light lunch, he took two pills and headed to bed, but he immediately collapsed in convulsions and died within hours. At the Janus home later in the day, Janus' brother Stanley took two pills for back pain, and his wife, also named Theresa, also took two for a medical condition. Both deaths mirrored Adam Janus'.

"That's the secret of being a good nurse — you have to listen," Jensen says.

After hearing Adam Janus' widow's story, Jensen felt she had to go to the Janus home — against protocol and warnings that because the cause of death had yet to be determined, she might be in danger — to confirm what she believed was the common factor in the deaths.

"When something needs to be done, I do it and don't worry about protocol," Jensen says. "I didn't go through the right channels, I just did it, and I would do the same thing again. There is such a thing as nursing intuition, and if you spend enough time dealing with people, you get a feel for what is real and what is not, and I was positive this was it.

"I went to the house with two officers," she says. "We went into the bathroom, and there were lots of medications in there, but we found the bottle of Tylenol and the receipt, and I counted out the pills and there were six capsules missing and three people dead. We counted them again, and I said, 'This has got to be it.'"

The medical examiner did not initially believe Jensen's theory that the Tylenol caused the deaths, but the next day when chemical analysis revealed another pill in the bottle contained cyanide, her hypothesis was legitimized. Village authorities sprung into action, removing Tylenol from store shelves and driving through village streets with a bullhorn, directing residents to throw Tylenol away or send it back to the manufacturer, Jensen says.

Further, Jensen called Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Tylenol, and informed company officials of the linkage. They responded by recalling millions of dollars worth of the pain reliever across the country, Jensen says.

The person who tampered with the pill bottles — it was determined that at least 160 pills were contaminated — was never caught, but the crime changed the way such medicines were packaged.

According to reports from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the incident prompted new regulations on the tamper-resistant features required on over-the-counter medications.

The incident also changed Jensen's life.

She received numerous accolades, including being named Citizen of the Year by the Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce and was a finalist for the 1985 Golden Hearts Humanitarian Award for her role in connecting the dots between the deaths and the drugs.

But the subtler changes were the most meaningful, she adds.

Robin Huiras is a freelance writer. To comment, e-mail editorIL@nursingspectrum.com.