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Former nurse: Death should be wake-up call for lawmakers

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

A former nurse with the Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institution and a national mental health organization said a grisly death inside the facility should serve as a wake-up call to state lawmakers making budget cuts.

Former contract nurse Derwin Powell said of everything he saw in his 16 months working for the Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institution, being the first to discover the body of Cody Skelton was the most disturbing.

A Channel 4 I-Team investigation found that Skelton, a patient in the institution last November, drowned himself in the toilet of his bathroom.

"When I saw the sight, anger immediately came over me, my first thought was, 'Who had this patient?'" Powell said.

Powell said a psychiatric technician, employed by the state, was supposed to be checking on Skelton every 15 minutes.

"I think the patient could have been left along there for several hours. Possibly four," Powell said.

Powell said Skelton's death is a direct result of the institution having to make budget cuts to a one-to-one supervision, where an employee constantly monitors a patient.

Other former and current staff of the institute said what the Channel 4 I-Team exposed happening in the institute, from Skelton's death to mistreatment of other patients, is the result of budget cuts to staff.

The Channel 4 I-Team found that between 2009 and 2010, 53 staff positions had been eliminated at the institution.

"I think that (Skelton's death) tells us there isn't enough staff at MTMHI, that they've had to cut training, they've had to cut supervision," said Sita Diehl of the National Association on Mental Health.

Diehl watched the I-Team's investigations into the facility and said Skelton's death is proof of the deadly ramifications of budget cuts to state mental institutions.

"He's (Skelton) the canary in the mine. He is what we are afraid of. We have to tell the legislature that unless they wake up and smell the coffee, we're going to have more of this," Diehl said.

Powell said he and nine other contract nurses, who were not assigned to monitor Cody, were still terminated as a result.

Powell said the institution took that action knowing Skelton's family is angry.

So what's Powell's message to Skelton's family?

"I would say, you don't have the right to be mad. You have the right to be pissed," Powell said.

The state Department of Mental Health, which oversees the institute, will not confirm the findings of the contract employees or if any state employees have been fired as the result of Skelton's death.

The Channel 4 I-Team currently has open records requests with the state to obtain 65 disciplinary actions taken in the past three years.

Copyright 2012 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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