By early September, 75 patients of the two centers had tested positive for hepatitis C. Federal prosecutors say that 35 of those cases have the same genotype as Parker's virus and probably came from her, though to date only one has been definitively linked by DNA tests.

When the news broke about how she had become infected, Lollini felt a sudden rush of rage and sadness. She'd been plagued for months by waves of anxiety, all the unanswered questions: How did this happen? Is my daughter infected? What's going to happen next? Why won't anyone tell me anything?

"I was getting kind of resigned to the fact that nobody was ever going to be held accountable, that there would never be a name or a face to put to what happened to me," she says. "Then when all this came out, it was surreal. It was a lot to try to understand at once."

Scrub tech Kristen Parker clowned for the camera on her MySpace page — and figured out how to beat the drug security measures at Rose Medical Center.
Scrub tech Kristen Parker clowned for the camera on her MySpace page — and figured out how to beat the drug security measures at Rose Medical Center.
Tony Gallagher

Location Info

Map

Rose Medical Center

4567 E. 9th Ave.
Denver, CO 80220

Category: Medical Facilities

Region: East Denver

Two months later, patients are still trying to understand. Much of their anger is directed at Parker, but they also have questioned the hospital's policies and management. They wonder how a heedless addict could operate so freely inside the hospital, stealing drugs — and possibly infecting patients — dozens of times over six months. "They never came back to me until after the news broke," says Lollini, who received a call from Rose's chief nursing officer after Parker's arrest hit the papers. "She said, 'How are you?' I wanted to say, 'Where were you in April?' She said she'd be my chief point of contact with the hospital if I had questions. But from my point of view, the damage had already been done."

Rose has been hailed by hepatitis support groups as a "good corporate citizen" for pledging to pay for the treatment of patients who contracted the virus through Parker's actions. But some infected patients are critical of the way Rose notified them of test results and avoided their questions; they accuse the hospital of being in a quasi-litigation mode, cautious in its offers of assistance. Others who tested positive but were informed that their virus didn't come from Parker worry that they can't trust the testing procedure. Even patients who tested negative say the process was more traumatic than it needed to be.

Rose officials maintain that their precautions concerning drugs and infection meet or exceed industry standards and that the hep C outbreak was an aberration involving a particularly determined rogue employee. "Kristen Parker and people who divert drugs are pretty clever and look at how to work around the system," says Lindy Garvin, vice president of patient quality and safety for HealthONE, Rose's parent company. "She figured out ways to get around what we think are very good policies."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health-care-associated infectious diseases are one of the ten leading causes of death in the United States. Most infections aren't spread by the kind of needle exchange in which Parker was involved, but the number of cases of hospital employees stealing powerful, injectable medications is on the rise — and so is the potential for more outbreaks like the ones at Rose and Audubon.

In June, a former nurse at Boulder Community Hospital pleaded guilty to five counts of tampering after stealing fifty vials of fentanyl over a period of months and substituting tap water and saline; other recent, similar cases of drug thefts have occurred at Swedish Medical Center, Denver Health, St. Anthony and other area hospitals. The confluence of drug diversion and patient-safety issues prompted the formation of a Colorado Hospital Association "medication security" task force and has administrators considering a range of changes in equipment and training, everything from tamper-resistant syringes to more intensive employee screening and monitoring.

"The system is definitely broken," says Lollini, who still has the bill for the fentanyl she was supposed to receive during surgery. "I paid $89.25 to get injected with hepatitis C."

Lollini has become an outspoken advocate for improved patient safety and for hepatitis C research. She agreed to have her full name published in this article in part to combat the stigma associated with the virus. "Am I angry at Rose? Yeah, they fucked up," she says. "There are things they could have done to prevent this. It was far too easy for Kristen to get her hands on those narcotics.

"But the question is, What have they done to change that? What are they doing to make sure this doesn't happen again? If we don't learn from this, we're all stupid."


"I ALWAYS WANTED TO WORK IN SURGERY"

Q. How do you think you were exposed to hep C? How did you get it?

A. Probably in New Jersey. When I was living in New Jersey.

Q. Just by living there?

A. Well, I shared needles.

— Denver police interview with Kristen Parker, June 30, 2009

At the end of Kristen Parker's tearful, videotaped interview with Denver police, one of the detectives thanked her "for being honest with us."

"It's the least I could do now," she replied, sobbing.

Yet several key statements Parker made to the detectives — such as when she started stealing drugs at Rose, and whether she knew she had hep C when she started work last October — are in conflict with evidence uncovered by the investigation or information from other sources. The interview sheds less light on events at Rose than it does on Parker's desire to be thought of as something other than a monster.

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