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.