Jean Coyle, 65; Only Known ‘Angel of Death’ Survivor

Times Staff Writer

Jean Coyle, a former Glendale hospital patient who survived a potentially lethal drugging by “Angel of Death” killer Efren Saldivar, died Saturday, her daughter said Sunday.

Coyle, 65, was the only patient known to have lived after getting a dose of the paralyzing drugs Pavulon or succinylcholine chloride from the onetime respiratory therapist now serving a life sentence in state prison.

“I’m very lucky,” Coyle said in April 2002, when she attended the sentencing of Saldivar, who pleaded guilty to six counts of murder and one of attempted murder, though he confessed to killing scores more patients during his years working the graveyard shift at Glendale Adventist Medical Center.


The attempted murder count stemmed from a February 1997 incident in which Coyle, who had severe emphysema, was revived after a “code blue” emergency.

Saldivar initially told police that he killed elderly patients out of compassion for their suffering, but later said his motive was more “shameful” and “flippant” -- to reduce his workload.

“I don’t know if he thought he was God or what. It wasn’t right,” Coyle said at the sentencing hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court, which she addressed haltingly, breathing with the help of a tracheotomy tube.


In a Nursing Home

Coyle, who used a wheelchair, was a San Jose native who raised four children on her own and whose last job was as a housekeeper. She had lived in a Covina nursing home since her release from Glendale Adventist.

“Her declining health conditions had been such an arduous struggle since the events that transpired at Glendale Adventist hospital,” said her daughter, Michelle Elmore.

“She seemed to be in better spirits in recent months. In fact, [Friday] evening we were on our way to pick a Christmas tree and she was composing a list of Christmas gifts she wanted to get for family. She watched her favorite show, ‘Everybody Loves Raymond,’ and after we left she went to sleep.”

Elmore said she was called Saturday morning and told her mother “could no longer hold on,” and had died of respiratory distress, the same medical problem that had landed her in the Glendale hospital often before her encounter with Saldivar more than six years ago.

Authorities might never have learned that anyone had survived a poisoning by the respiratory therapist had it not been for Coyle’s feisty personality, which made her a rare patient whose name hospital workers could recall.

“My mom would stand out,” Elmore once said. “She’s kind of a complainer: ‘I need a breathing treatment. I need this. I need that.’ ”

Elmore said her mother also complained after she was moved from Glendale Adventist, “Oh, they tried to kill me over there.” But Elmore said she did not take the comment seriously at the time.

Later, however, a night shift co-worker told Glendale police that Saldivar had confided that he had injected Coyle with succinylcholine chloride, a potent muscle relaxer that respiratory therapists would never be authorized to use. Coyle was revived after a nurse became aware that she had gone into respiratory distress.


Tip Led to Probe

Glendale police began looking into patient deaths after a phone tipster alerted a top hospital official in early 1998 that an employee might be killing patients. A full task force investigation was launched that March, when Saldivar unexpectedly told authorities that he might have contributed to “anywhere from 100 to 200” patient deaths and actively killed up to 50 patients with Pavulon and succinylcholine chloride, which both stop natural breathing. Saldivar described himself as an “angel of death” who could not stand to see terminally ill patients suffer.

Saldivar was not formally charged until three years later, however, after lab tests found traces of Pavulon in the exhumed bodies of six patients who died at Glendale Adventist. Saldivar then gave his new explanation for killing, saying, “We had too much work. When I was only at my wits’ end on the staffing, I’d look at the [patient] board. ‘Who do we gotta get rid of?’ ”

Saldivar also said then that he had killed even more patients with the paralyzing drugs than he had previously admitted, telling detectives that his death toll had reached 60 by 1994, when he “lost count,” but still kept killing up to dozens of patients a year.

Saldivar also then admitted having injected the paralyzing drug into Coyle’s IV line.

“Oh, her. Yeah. I did try .... I gave her, I think, a half dose,” he said during 2001 questioning by police. “Something in me just held back.”

Funeral services for Coyle will be Monday at Guerra Gutierrez Mortuaries in Los Angeles, her daughter said.