ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Six years ago, supervisors at the University of Michigan hospital were eager to hire David M. Kwiatkowski as a radiology technician. At 27, he was an outgoing candidate who had experience helping doctors set up X-ray equipment and inject traceable dyes.
But after only a month in the $55,000-a-year job, veteran staffers eyed him warily. Twice, vials of narcotics had gone missing from operating rooms he had been in, according to campus police reports, and Kwiatkowski’s answers to officers were unconvincing.
“I’m the new guy,” he told them, suggesting he was being scapegoated.
Then, two months later, a nurse reported that a vial of fentanyl, a painkiller far more potent than morphine, had disappeared from a counter less than 10 minutes after she left it there. Another nurse had spotted Kwiatkowski swiftly enter and leave the room during that time.
When police interrogated him again, suggesting a lie detector test, Kwiatkowski quit. The hospital barred him from returning, noting in his personnel file that he “resigned during suspension while under an ongoing investigation.”
But hospital executives did nothing to stop him from working elsewhere. No one alerted the national registry that certifies radiology technicians.University of Michigan police did not file charges. And under legal advice to avoid defamation suits by former employees, hospital officials stood by their standard personnel policy to only confirm dates of hire if any future employer inquired about Kwiatkowski.
A Globe investigation has found that time after time, over the course of eight years, hospitals ignored the long-term danger posed by this deceptively charming technician, allowing him to move from state to state endangering the lives of patients as he adopted more elaborate methods of stealing drugs. When he was finally arrested this summer, prosecutors say, Kwiatkowski had committed one of the most egregious medical crimes in US history, infecting at least 39 patients throughout the country, mostly in New Hampshire, but also in Kansas and Maryland, with a life-threatening virus often spread by tainted needles.
With a muscular swagger and upbeat personality, he maneuvered through 19 hospitals in eight states, despite leaving graphic evidence while working in Pennsylvania and Arizona, and perhaps elsewhere, that he was descending into addiction, according to a Globe review of federal and state records and interviews with colleagues, friends, and neighbors.
He was reeling, but he kept getting work. He took advantage of the plethora of short-term assignments available to him nationwide through temporary staffing agencies, counting, as he moved from job to job, on his well-placed faith that angry former employers were too harried, or legally intimidated, to try to derail his career with damning references. They simply rushed him to the exit door and searched for a new hire.
Kwiatkowski’s double life ended only when a public health crisis erupted at Exeter Hospital in New Hampshire that drew the attention of government officials. In mid-May, several patients in the cardiac catheterization unit tested positive for a specific strain of hepatitis C, a life-threatening virus that attacks the liver. By July, a wider screening of patients and staff found 31 had tested positive — 30 patients and just one employee, Kwiatkowski.
It seemed clear to investigators that Kwiatkowski had adopted a particularly dangerous drug-stealing tactic: Grab a new syringe loaded with the narcotics, then replace it with a syringe he had used, filled with dummy fluid. In Kwiatkowski’s case, the substitute syringes were contaminated with traces of the virus he acquired during his state-to-state travels and years of drug abuse.
Kwiatkowski declined to be interviewed for this story.
His case has become a stark reminder that health care workers are not immune to the drug problems that plague 10 percent of all Americans at some point in their lives. Abuse of prescription painkillers has skyrocketed, making hospitals, with their well-stocked supplies, potentially desirable places for addicts to work.
Kwiatkowski apparently had a reason to try painkillers: He told friends he had Crohn’s disease, a chronic intestinal inflammatory disorder, and they now wonder whether that led to his troubles. As Kwiatkowski sits in a federal lockup awaiting his next court hearing, after pleading not guilty, his stunned friends are questioning just about everything they know about this fun-loving young man with a penchant for telling tall tales.Continued...