Although Kristen Parker, the surgical tech who infected dozens of Rose Medical Center patients with the hepatitis C virus in 2008 and 2009, is now serving a thirty-year prison sentence, the fallout from her crimes continues to keep a scrum of attorneys busy. In recent court filings in a patient lawsuit against the hospital and operating room personnel who worked with Parker, the defense adamantly denies any responsibility for the outbreak -- and even proposes a novel theory of how the virus was transmitted.
No one's disputing that Parker acted alone when she stole syringes of fentanyl, a potent painkiller used in many surgical procedures, from operating rooms and replaced them with syringes filled with saline. A former heroin junkie, Parker injected herself with fentanyl and often put the used needle back on the anesthesiologist's cart -- exposing patient after patient to hep C, a potentially liver-ravaging virus, which she'd acquired through sharing needles with other addicts. She was fired after testing positive for fentanyl, and health officials eventually linked her genotype to 35 cases of hepatitis C among Rose patients.
But, as detailed in my 2009 feature "Going Viral," the ease with which Parker was able to obtain dope and infect patients raised a number of concerns about the screening and supervision of hospital employees and Rose's drug control procedures. Parker was hired at Rose despite a spotty employment history and kept on despite warning signs of drug-seeking behavior; after she was fired, it took her only twelve days to find a job at another clinic, which honored her request not to contact her previous employer. She continued her syringe-swapping ways until investigators caught up with her weeks later.
A federal review of medication security measures at Rose Medical Center made several recommendations for improving the hospital's policies and practices, some of which focused on anesthesiologists' routine of preparing medications in advance and leaving them unattended in an unlocked cart drawer before the surgery actually begins. Hospital officials say they've taken several steps to combat drug diversion in the wake of the Parker debacle, and many of the legal claims against the hospital itself have been quietly settled.
But some aspects of the litigation remain unresolved. One patient who tested positive for hep C is suing his anesthesiologist, Sherry Gorman, for allegedly violating hospital rules about keeping controlled substances secured. In a recent court filing, Dr. Gorman's attorneys indicate they have several expert witnesses, as well as Gorman herself, who are prepared to testify that "anesthesiologists do not have a duty to prevent diversion of controlled substances in the OR... do not have a duty to be familiar with and comply with all hospital policies and procedures regarding controlled substances" -- and aren't expected to understand the "myriad" federal laws regarding the care and handling of such drugs.
In addition, the lawyers maintain it's "impossible to state with reasonable medical probability" how Parker managed to infect the patient. In other words, it might not have happened by swapping a syringe on Gorman's cart but instead "via contaminated saline in a multidose saline vial" Parker could have accessed by other means.
That's certainly a different version of Parker's method than investigators have presented. It's also one flatly rejected by patient advocates familiar with the case. "If that was true -- and it isn't -- then thousands of other people would have been infected," says Lauren Lollini, another Rose patient turned litigant after her hospital stay resulted in hep C.
Lollini notes that Parker was interviewed extensively by police and prosecutors. While her account of her activities changed over time, her final debrief is considered reliable. And that version describes a ridiculously simple procedure of swiping fentanyl-filled syringes when others in the OR weren't looking, and replacing them with syringes labeled "fentanyl" but filled with saline -- and often contaminated with the virus.
Rose officials have taken measures to make it far less easy for the next drug-addled tech to endanger patients, Lollini says: "I think Rose has done what they needed to do. The OR, as we've learned, is not always a secure place."
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See the video below, from Parker's January 2010 debrief, for more details of how she went about her devastating thefts:
More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Accused hepatitis-C passer Kristen Parker: A photo gallery."