Hospital worker sentenced to 39 years in prison

Technician infected at least 46 patients with hepatitis C due to drug addiction

By Amanda Spadaro, Science Editor

[email protected]

Dec. 6, 2013

 

Hospital technician David M. Kwiatkowski received his sentence this past Monday, Dec. 2, for 39 years in prison due to his infection of a known 46 hospital patients with hepatitis C. The traveling cardiac technician spent time at 18 hospitals in multiple states before accepting a job position in New Hampshire in 2011.

Kwiatkowski has worked in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire and New York, with the current largest number of known victims being in New Hampshire.

Hepatitis C is a disease primarily of the liver which has variable infection times. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the severity of the disease can last only a few weeks as a mild infection or it maybe a lifelong affliction, even fatal. Chronic hepatitis C may cause scarring of the liver and cirrhosis, which may ultimately lead to liver failure or cancer. Other symptoms can include vomiting, abdominal pain and jaundice.

Hepatitis C typically spreads through blood-to-blood contact, so today, sharing needles or other infected equipment is the most common method of infection. Hepatitis C is not curable and there is no vaccine to protect against infection.

Kwiatkowski, a drug-addict, transmitted the virus to patients through the use of infected syringes. He had been injecting himself with fentanyl, an anesthetic, but after injection, Kwiatkowski would refill the emptied syringes with saline that would later be injected to patients, according to court documents.

When he could not get fentanyl, Kwiatkowski reportedly drank a fifth of vodka and injested a minimum of 80 milligrams of Oxycontin daily, leading him to plan to steal fentanyl and return the infected syringes.

While Kwiatkowski knew he had hepatitis C in 2010, he continued to obtain fentanyl while infecting hospital patients. Kwiatkowski, in the plea agreement, said, “I’m going to kill a lot of people out of this.”

“If he knew that he was infected and he put those needles back on the shelf, that is the definition of evil,” Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News’ chief health and medical editor, said to ABC News. “Anyone who was in those hospitals when he was working there is potentially at risk. We’re talking tens of thousands of people.”

In spite of this knowledge, Kwiatkowski continued on his path, finding job after job despite being fired from multiple hospitals. While background checks are usually done, some hospitals rely on the applicants to report criminal activity, which Kwiatkowski failed to report, including a DUI arrest in 2005.

In 2008, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center fired him for being caught taking a syringe of fentanyl from an operating room. Kwiatkowski also had three empty syringes on him.

However, he simply moved on to work at the Virginia Medical Center in Baltimore, neglecting to report the incident in Pennsylvania.

In Arizona two years later, Kwiatkowski was found unconscious in a bathroom with a syringe, causing the Arizona Heart Hospital to immediately terminate his position. Kwiatkowski also renounced his radiologic technology license. Despite this, though, he continued to find work, being fired from addiction-related incidents four times through his travels.

Ten months after knowing he had hepatitis C, in April of 2011, Kwiatkowski settled at New Hampshire’s Exeter Hospital, resulting in the infection of at least 32 patients.

In August, Kwiatkowski pleaded guilty to sixteen charges which included obtaining controlled substances through fraud and tampering with a consumer product. By pleading guilty, the defense hoped for a lighter sentence of 30 years, which would better balance the severity of his actions with his mental and emotional state.

“His conduct was surely monstrous, but he’s not a monster,” Jonathan R. Saxe, an assistant federal public defender as part of Kwiatkowski’s defense, said in an interview with the New York Times following the hearing. “There’s no worse place to be a drug addict than in a hospital, where you can gain access to stuff like that.” Saxe emphasized that the defendant’s actions were driven by drug addiction and his intentions were not to personally harm others.

On the other hand, prosecutors wished for 40 years, calling the situation “a national public health crisis,” according to USA Today, emphasizing the emotional destruction of Kwiatkowski’s actions. The endangerment of public health, in the prosecution’s mind, was not be handled lightly.

The hearing included statements from 20 victims, citing the issues that the hepatitis C infection had caused. Two of Kwiatkowski’s 16 charges come from the death of a Kansas patient who died from the infection, identified as the same strain of hepatitis C as Kwiatkowski.

Linda Ficken, a 71-year-old Kansas patient, traveled to New Hampshire to speak at the hearing, expressing frustration and regret. Ficken, whose brother was recently diagnosed with leukemia, cannot be a bone marrow donor even if she is a match due to her hepatitis C infection. Ficken considered the sentence as closure but told the New York Times that it did not bring her much comfort.

“On one hand, you were saving my life, and on the other hand, your acts are a death sentence for me,” Ficken said at the hearing. “Do I thank you for what you did to help me? Do I despise you for what your actions did and will continue to do for the rest of my life? Or do I simply just feel sorry for you being the pathetic individual you are?”

Linwood Nelson, a 66-year-old Vietnam veteran from Virginia, also went to the hearing. Nelson’s son told the Baltimore Sun that Nelson has shown significant withdrawal from loved ones, stating that the sentencing, “doesn’t repair anything.”

“Today gave some closure, to know that [Kwiatkowski] cannot infect another victim, whether it be a veteran or otherwise. He will never have that opportunity with 39 years incarcerated,” Nelson said to the Baltimore Sun. “Like I told him, if I’m the veteran that he got to, and he isn’t able to infect another one, then I’ll carry it.

United States District Court Judge Joseph Laplante gave Kwiatkowski a 39-year sentence, removing one year as a sign of compassion, a reminder for the defendant.

“It’s important for you to recognize and remember as you spend the next 39 years in prison to focus on the one year you didn’t get and try to develop that capacity in yourself,” Laplante said, as reported by the Associated Press.

In addition, Kwiatkowski said, “I don’t blame the families for hating me. I hate myself,” according to the Associated Press.

One of the most troubling aspects of the hearing was the lack of public health oversight, leading to investigations into applicant screening processes, exacerbated by a healthcare culture that lacked reporting against peers.

“We found there wasn’t one single overarching issue, but really it was instead multiple systemwide vulnerabilities in multiple arenas,” Dr. Lucy Wilson, chief of Virginia’s health department’s epidemiology center, said to the Baltimore Sun, calling out the “missed opportunities that could have stopped [him].”

Because of Kwiatkowski’s actions, Maryland hospitals have offered free hepatitis C testing to more than 1,750 patients. The CDC has also suggested that 12,000 people nation-wide be tested for hepatitis C.