White Coat Notes

NH hospital technician sentenced to 39 years after stealing drugs, infecting patients with hepatitis

CONCORD, N.H.—Concluding one of the most egregious cases of misconduct by a hospital technician, a federal judge in New Hampshire on Monday sentenced a former Exeter Hospital employee to 39 years in prison after he plead guilty to an elaborate drug-stealing scheme that infected 45 patients nationwide with hepatitis C.

Under a plea deal announced in August, David Kwiatkowski, the 34-year-old medical technician, had agreed to a sentence ranging from 30 to 40 years.

Kwiatkowski, a former college baseball player from Michigan who later trained to be a radiology technician, betrayed little emotion during a nearly four-hour hearing during which about 20 of his victims and their family members spoke about how Kwiatkowski’s actions had davastated their lives. Each asked US District Court judge Joseph Laplante to impose at least the maximum sentence allowed by the plea deal.

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“I hope in the future I will find forgiveness, but that has yet to come,” said Connie Murphy McNeal, whose mother, Eleanor, died at age 89 of complications related to a hepatitis C infection blamed on Kwiatkowski when he worked at a Kansas hospital.

David Holley of Raymond, N.H., who works in medical device sales, said that since he developed hepatitis C, he has suffered liver damage and pain, has plunged into a deep depression, and becomes easily fatigued. “This entire event has engulfed my thoughts for the last 23 months,” he said.

Jean Burke, whose 63-year-old husband Richard was infected, glared at Kwiatkowski as she spoke. “Becoming a junkie and an alcoholic somehow robbed you of your humanity and your regard for the people you were treating,” she said. “Now that you’re sober, we’re here to remind you that the people that you affected are real. We are not faceless statistics.”

Before he was sentenced, Kwiatkowski accepted Laplante’s offer to address the court. “I don’t blame the families for hating me. I hate myself,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

He added that he never hurt anyone intentionally and had gone into the health care field to help people. “My addiction took that away from me.”

In announcing the sentence, Laplante said Kwiatkowski deserved the maximum because his actions reflected cruelty, even sadism. “There’s a component that goes beyond recklessness,” he said.

But Laplante added that he shaved a year off the maximum “just as a token,” as a way to remind Kwiatkowski that “people do have the capacity for mercy and compassion.”

Prosecutors had asked for the maximum of 40 years, saying Kwiatkowski’s scheme is one of the most far-reaching and disturbing cases of drug pilfering in the nation. They said Kwiatkowski knew he carried hepatitis C—an incurable viral illness that attacks the liver—yet stole potent painkillers in a way that spread the disease to vulnerable patients undergoing heart procedures. While working as a traveling radiology technician, Kwiatkowski took syringes loaded with the painkiller fentanyl off trays prepared for patients undergoing procedures including cardiac catheterization. To avoid detection, he put back old syringes, which he had previously used to inject himself and were tainted with hepatitis C.

Kwiatkowski worked in a total of about 20 hospitals in eight states, and his last job was at Exeter Hospital in Exeter, N.H. He was stopped there only after health officials noticed a suspicious spike in the number of patients contracting hepatitis C, and an investigation of blood samples from patients showed that they had the same strain as Kiwatkowski’s. He was arrested in the summer of 2012.

Kwiatkowski’s defense attorneys urged the judge to give him 30 years on grounds that he had plead guilty and spared the government a lengthy trial while acknowledging the pain he had caused so many patients and their families. They also noted that at least three other medical workers in other states had infected patients with hepatitis C by similarly swapping syringes to steal drugs and did not receive sentences of more than 30 years.

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