How a drug addicted scrub tech changed my life forever

It was a cold winter day in 2009 when my life changed forever, however, it would be months before I figured that out.  On that fateful day, a drug-addicted surgical scrub tech assigned to my operating room stole syringes of fentanyl, a potent intravenous narcotic, from my anesthesia cart.  According to news reports, investigative summaries, and the scrub tech’s confession, once she took the syringes, she used them on herself.

It’s hard to fathom, but that’s not even the really sick and twisted part to this tale.  The scrub tech had hepatitis C, a blood-borne virus that attacks and, sometimes, destroys the liver.  She knew she was positive for the virus.  Yet, after injecting herself with a drug intended for a vulnerable and innocent patient, she chose to refill the syringe, which was contaminated with her infected blood, with saline and replace it in my cart.  There was no way I could have known that she had tampered with my drugs.  The syringes were in the same place where I left them, and both fentanyl and saline look identical.  So, on that unfortunate day, I unknowingly injected a mixture of saline and hepatitis C into my patient’s bloodstream, instead of a painkiller.

The following summer, the story made local and national headlines.  At least 5,000 patients were at risk for having been exposed to the virus.  Every anesthesiologist in my group secretly prayed that they weren’t involved.  The hospital went into extreme damage-control mode.  Tight restrictions and policies regarding the handling and securing of narcotics were hastily instituted.  Panicked patients were tested en masse for the potentially lethal virus.

A few months later, I received notice that I was being sued, along with the hospital.  Receiving the summons and the two-year ordeal that followed was, by far, the most painful, mortifying, demoralizing, and caustic event of my life.  Of course I grieved for the patient, but I had to do so in silence because any discussion of the event was forbidden on the advice of my attorneys.  Never before would I have imagined the depths of shame, guilt, and self-doubt that I was capable of inflicting upon myself.

As the lawsuit evolved, the lawyers got nastier, and the patient got greedier.  My initial feelings of compassion and empathy dissolved into rage and betrayal.  I suffered through an eight-hour deposition with hostile attorneys where I was belittled, ridiculed, verbally abused, and intimidated.   Months later, I was emotionally beaten down, and I made the painful decision to settle.  At that point, it was no longer about right versus wrong.  I just wanted the nightmare to end.  It was at that time, in the middle of settlement negotiations, that I was featured on the local television news station, only to be followed a week later by a front-page headline in the local paper.  Statements I made during my deposition were taken out of context.  The public commenters on the stories cried for my crucifixion.  The timing of the stories and their prejudicial slant reeked of a couple of reporters on the take.  I was made to look like a cold, heartless, reckless villain, and the patient was the innocent victim of my blatant negligence.  That wasn’t the reality, but I couldn’t defend myself … on the advice of counsel.

I never got my day in court or my opportunity to explain that I’m not a monster.  I wish I could have explained that, before this happened, I was a caring, compassionate, skilled, and highly qualified physician.  The manner in which I secured and stored my narcotics was identical to the manner in which at least 95% of my colleagues handled theirs.  We were all taught during residency that the operating room was a secure environment.  There were no rules or policies in place at any of the hospitals at which I practiced at that time dictating how narcotics should be secured.  It wasn’t until after the event, and a national spotlight highlighted the issue, that strict rules were established and policies were rigidly enforced.  Anyone who claims otherwise is deceitful and more interested in self-preservation than the truth.

Now I am a shadow of my former self.  I’m bitter, defensive, cynical and wounded.  I need to stress that in no way is this article intended to take away from the fact that a patient was hurt and suffered while under my care.  The circumstances under which this occurred, though, were extreme.  I was as much of a victim of the scrub tech’s crime as my patient.  We just endured different kinds of injuries.  Mine were of the heart and soul and will never heal.

Kate O’Reilley is an anesthesiologist who blogs at katevsworld.

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  • http://twitter.com/SueWintz Sue Wintz

    Kate, thank you for your article. What happened brought heartache all the way around and for that I am so sorry. Rather than comment on the events, I do want to respond to your last paragraph. I’m a board certified professional chaplain, however my words come to you in a different context. Nine years ago our 17 year old daughter was killed by a speeding red light runner; a 36 year old man who was not impaired but simply reckless. In the resulting lawsuit to change the road which contributed to the accident (we wanted no money for ourselves, only for her boyfriend who was a miracle, but that’s another story), we went through 22 months of hell. On top of grieving for our daughter we endured the nastiness of attorneys who invaded every aspect of our lives. Woundedness upon woundedness, and I will never again be the person I was before her death. However…a word of hope: while you will never be the person you were before this happened, you will find a new normal. You will never be your former self, but your heart and soul will heal. It’s one moment, one breath at a time, especially on those days when it all seems overwhelming. Know that I’m holding you in my heart.

    • http://www.facebook.com/kate.oreilley Kate O’Reilley

      Hi Sue,
      Thank you for sharing your story. I am so sorry for the loss of your daughter — I couldn’t even begin to come up with words that would suffice. In spite of all your loss, you are such a giving, caring person. You are truly wonderful, and I thank you for your kind words. I am embarrassed to even portray my story as a tragedy, after reading your ordeal. My heart bleeds for you. Obviously, you are very kind, strong and pure. God Bless You.
      Love,

      Kate

      • http://twitter.com/SueWintz Sue Wintz

        Kate, your story IS a tragedy, and a senseless one at that so get rid of that embarrassment. What happened to you was no less hurtful or life-changing. The sadness is that it can occur all too easily in the current healthcare environment, and good practitioners like you are the ones who unfairly bear the brunt of poor organizational practices. Just don’t let it define you – you’re worth more than that!

  • Dale Coy

    Ich… This could happen to anyone. If things don’t change in terms of our vulnerability to lawsuits and the shame and financial ruin they produce doctors will want out as soon as they can float financially. Soon with 34M newly insured there won’t be enough doctors. I would love to hear your comments regarding a novel I wrote to address these issues, Morton’s Fork. I hope some day with a little help it stands with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in that it addresses the social issue of our decade from a physicians perspective.

  • http://twitter.com/Clinician1 Dave Mittman, PA

    Kate: Nothing I could say would make a difference but I still want to try to help. It’s “the system” and you were just another person caught in it. Good people get caught all the time in every system they work in. I have a PA friend who went through real discrimination on many levels while at work. She stayed “for the patients” for awhile and left.
    Physicians also get paid well and enjoy a great life for the trade off of being exposed to the legal system which takes you apart (if you allow it to) and puts you together in very different pieces after you get exposed to it. Insurance companies are no better.What I want to tell you is that you will clearly and undoubtedly heal. You will. I promise. Don’t let this own you, as long as it does you can’t stop yourself being “in it”. Own it, step away out of it slowly. You will slowly but surely heal. It’s what we humans do best.Hugs,Dave

    • http://www.facebook.com/kate.oreilley Kate O’Reilley

      Dave,
      Thanks for the kind words and the thoughtful reply. I am still tragically hurt by what happened, but writing with the hopes of switching careers has made me feel more in control of my destiny. It may sound premature or impulsive, but I know my love for medicine is gone. I will leave it the second I find a viable alternative.
      Best,
      Kate

  • mary

    Dear Dr Kate-im responding to your post as a chronic pain patient. Shame shame on the ‘legal system’ AND the media for the pain fear and anguish YOU’VE had to endure-all b/c of an addict. I understand what you’re saying but for the sake of your patients I pray you can heal & continue to provide care for them. I have had2 jump through hoops (took years) just to receive pain management but I completely support all the ‘defensive driving’ my (& *any*) doctor MUST have in place to protect his practice and livelihood. I have a small idea of ur pain especially via ‘nasty attys-in my case clear evidence re employer negligence) & know how realizing its ‘just business’ can feel beyond galling but as someone else wrote:you WILL heal…I just pray you do realize patients like me would never dream of suing a doctor for such a non-forseeable tragedy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kate.oreilley Kate O’Reilley

    Hello all,
    I would like to make it clear that this article was intended to focus more on the emotional impact of a lawsuit upon a physician, rather than the exact facts. Nonetheless, I think it is critical to point out that the mode of transmission of hepatitis C from the infected scrub tech to a syringe of fentanyl and then to the patient is the ALLEGED mode of transmission. No one really knows for certain (accept perhaps the scrub tech) how she transmitted the virus to patients. It is just as likely that she contaminated the saline irrigation on the surgical field. When I say there was no way that I could have known that she tampered with my drugs, I should have qualified that with the word “allegedly.” I really have no way of knowing if I truly injected Hepatitis C into my patient’s blood stream via a contaminated syringe. It is, however, what my patient and the attorneys allege and even the accusation stings.
    Regardless of how my patient (and many others) became infected, the feelings of guilt, grief, remorse, shame, anger and, unfortunately bitterness, remain.
    “My story” was based on hypothetical assumptions about the scrub tech’s actions, and in no way do I mean to imply that these assumptions are fact.
    Sincerely,
    Kate O’Reilley, M.D.