His colleagues at Harper immediately took to this sturdy young man who stood about 5 feet 10 inches and weighed 215 pounds. He liked to party, but also seemed devoted to his work, which included helping to delicately thread catheters, moving CT scan equipment, and chit-chatting with patients to relax them.
“He was pretty energetic,” recalled veteran nurse Kim Detrick.
He was making a positive impression on some of his neighbors as well. Wayne Mueller, who lived across the street, recalled watching Kwiatkowski’s father help him bring equipment to renovate his son’s Westland home. Kwiatkowski struck him as a “level-headed” man with ambition and a lovely girlfriend from the hospital.
But months later, Kwiatkowski’s life took a noticeable turn for the worse.
At Harper, he became prickly. Detrick said he started developing “an attitude,” including challenging doctor’s orders. His fiancee allegedly broke off the relationship. Detrick also recalled that colleagues noticed Kwiatkowski showing up at work during his off hours, something that often arouses hospital suspicions about drug pilfering.
“He’d be there where he wasn’t supposed to be,” she said.
When Kwiatkowski left his job at Harper, apparently voluntarily, Detrick said colleagues were “not sad to see him go.”
In September 2006, he received the job offer to work at the University of Michigan medical center — an offer that was, almost immediately, reconsidered.
Just after offering him the position, supervisors conducting a routine criminal background check spotted his 2005 drunken-driving arrest. A staffer typed an e-mail to a colleague asking for more information, so there aren’t “any surprises down the road.”
A hospital spokesman declined to reveal what the inquiry yielded or if officials called previous employers, such as at Harper, but they did not pull the job offer, a decision they would later regret after vials of narcotics went missing.
“Nothing like this had ever happened,” said Laura Bushey, a now-retired nurse at the hospital who had spotted Kwiatkowski in a room in December 2006 when he was suspected of stealing drugs for the third time. “It was totally unusual for our department.”
Even though a co-worker found the missing vial hidden under a cart hours later, campus police grilled Kwiatkowski more rigorously than ever before. His colleagues were wary of him, knowing he had made up stories about playing Big 10 baseball at the University of Michigan. He resigned under a dark cloud of suspicion.
Hospital spokesman Pete Barkey said the hospital might have told other hospitals if Kwiatkowski had been fired, but he added, “We did not fire him.”
Around this time, Kwiatkowski’s neighbors in Westland noticed changes in his life, though none suspected drug addiction.
Some mornings he was dressed in scrubs for work, other mornings he lounged around his backyard. He confided in some neighbors that he was let go from a job — though he did not specify, nor did they ask, which job it was. He cited past drunk-driving problems, or complaints from colleagues.
“He told me he lost his job because of his DUI and smelled of alcohol at work,” said a neighbor, 20, who asked not to be named to avoid getting involved in Kwiatkowski’s legal case.
The life of a traveler
In the fall of 2007, Kwiatkowski bolted from Michigan, bringing only his dog, and jumped into the fast-expanding world of temporary health care staffing agencies, specializing in transient workers, called travelers.
These agencies started to proliferate in the 1970s in response to a nationwide nursing shortage, and rapidly expanded in the past decade to include other health care professions, including radiologic technologists, often referred to as RTs, who focus on procedures, including minimally invasive ones, involving X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs.
The arrangement had benefits — and downsides — for the traveler and the hospital.
Travelers, who became employees of the agencies, got a chance to satisfy their wanderlust while earning higher hourly rates than hospital employees, plus often receiving agency-paid housing and transportation. Their assignments, however, typically lasted for only three months, so their lives were filled with constant uncertainty.
Budget-conscious hospitals could gain lower permanent payrolls and tremendous staffing flexibility, though they lost some control in the candidate-vetting process.
Staffing agencies would take on this time-consuming work, including drug testing. Such tests were typically scheduled, making it possible for drug abusers to cleanse their system prior to testing. Agency profits vary widely, but industry specialists say firms typically earn about 15 to 25 percent of a worker’s wages.Continued...