A nurse cleared over the fatal poisoning of patients at Stepping Hill Hospital has been suspended for three months after she admitted stealing drugs.
An NMC panel found Rebecca Leighton’s fitness to practise impaired following a disciplinary hearing in which she suggested staff habitually took medication from the premises.
Ms Leighton, 29, sobbed gently as the panel, sitting in London, said the “relatively short” suspension would be the best course of action as she had shown remorse, had done the best to atone for actions and was unlikely to repeat her misconduct. Colleagues also had confidence in her as a nurse, it noted.
Panel chair Susan Hurds said: “We are satisfied that Ms Leighton has learned a tremendous amount from the experience and we are satisfied she would not repeat her actions.”
The disciplinary panel found that she was “not fundamentally dishonest” and had worked hard to mediate her conduct since the incident.
Ms Hurds said she had sought no intentional financial benefit and had a “previously unblemished nursing career”.
Ms Leighton spent six weeks in jail when she was arrested in connection with the deaths on the acute care wards of the Stockport hospital in 2011 but was released when prosecutors concluded there was not enough evidence against her.
The police investigation revealed she had removed packets of painkillers and opiate-based drugs from the hospital. She admitted taking the medicine, which was discovered in her bedroom.
A total of 22 people suffered hypoglycaemic episodes between June and July 2011 at Stepping Hill after their saline drips were allegedly sabotaged with insulin.
Eight of them - all of whom were being treated on acute care wards for seriously ill patients - have now died.
The panel said it was impressed by the “robust portfolio” of information Ms Leighton presented to show her continuing dedication to the profession.
It included evidence of academic learning, testimonials and signs that she had gained a “significant insight into her misconduct”, Ms Hurds said.
It was also noted that Ms Leighton had “the most difficult of personal circumstances” but she did not try to cover up her actions which brought the profession into disrepute. In fact she co-operated with the investigation.
Her colleagues are “accepting her for her ability and not judging her for her past” and they have “confidence and trust” in her, the panel heard.
During her disciplinary hearing, Ms Leighton claimed staff would take drugs such as the painkiller ibuprofen from the hospital, sometimes for use during their holidays in “case of emergencies”.
Tom Hoskins, for the NMC, said: “She said that if the police were to search any number of employees from Stepping Hill Hospital, a random person, they would find them also in possession of such tablets.”
Paul Rooney, for Ms Leighton, told the hearing the nurse admitted the allegations against her which related to seven drugs, including the opiate-based tramadol capsules which she is accused of supplying or intending to supply.
He said: “Ms Leighton accepts that these charges amount to misconduct and further accepts that by that misconduct, she has brought the profession into disrepute and therefore her current fitness to practise is impaired.”
When questioned, Ms Leighton said she took ibuprofen for a sore throat and the antibiotics to treat the onset of tonsillitis, which she believed would prevent her from having to take time off work, the panel heard.
She thought she was entitled to remove the drugs for her own use but conceded the medication was not prescribed to her, Mr Hoskins said.
Interviews with other members of staff employed by the hospital appeared to contradict her suggestion that taking drugs from Stepping Hill Hospital was commonplace.
An investigation by the trust revealed only two employees were aware of the alleged practice but they claimed it was limited to paracetamol and did not extend to prescription drugs, the hearing was told.