"WHERE WERE YOU IN APRIL?"
Lauren Lollini was the first. Not the first to be exposed, certainly, and probably not the first to get sick. But she was the first patient to figure out that she had the virus and where it must have come from. "I'm one of the people who got the health department off their ass," she says.
In February, the 41-year-old mother had checked into Denver's Rose Medical Center for kidney stone surgery. The operation seemed to go well. But six weeks later, Lollini began to experience a wave of alarming symptoms. She felt exhausted and had no appetite. At first she thought it was the flu or bronchitis, but that didn't explain the rest of it: dark urine, light stool, a kind of death-warmed-over sense that her body was in great distress.
Lollini lived alone with her fourteen-month-old daughter; there was no other adult to comment on her daily deterioration. She phoned the doctor who'd performed the surgery. "Some office person told me that if I wasn't in pain, I was probably okay," she recalls.
On April Fool's Day, after a week or so of feeling terrible, she went to an urgent-care clinic. The medical assistant at the door took one look at her and asked, "Do you realize you're jaundiced?"
Lollini checked herself in a mirror. Her skin was turning yellow. So were the whites of her eyes. She went straight from the clinic to Rose's emergency room. Her liver seemed inflamed, the doctor said. Probably hepatitis. Time for some bloodwork.
She left the ER terrified. More doctors, more blood tests followed. After a couple of days, they had a definite diagnosis: hepatitis C, a blood-borne virus that's one of the leading causes of chronic liver disease. Fewer than a third of those infected with hep C develop any immediate symptoms. Some people "clear" the infection on their own and never know they had it; others may have the virus for decades before it suddenly erupts. But in severe cases, chronic hep C can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer and organ failure.
The doctors bombarded Lollini with questions about her lifestyle. The only way to get hepatitis C is through exposure to contaminated blood. It's not easily acquired through sexual contact, and blood transfusions have been screened for the virus since 1992. Consequently, most people diagnosed with hep C are intimately familiar with dirty needles — intravenous drug users, amateur tattoo enthusiasts, or both. (It's estimated that the virus has infected up to 40 percent of the population of U.S. prisons, where makeshift tattoo and drug needles are frequently shared.) Another possible explanation is a needle-stick incident in a health-care setting.
Lollini didn't fit any of the profiles. She believed the exposure had to be a result of her recent surgery. The two doctors she consulted about the disease, both of whom were affiliated with Rose, were skeptical.
"It was very apparent that I didn't have any of the risk factors other than the surgery at Rose," she says. "But I kept hearing, 'Not Rose. That's such a great hospital.'"
State health officials, who are notified of all cases of hepatitis C, were also baffled. But Lollini insisted that the investigation should focus on the hospital. "I knew that if I had gotten it, other people were probably getting infected," she recalls. "Something was going on. It wasn't until another person tested positive for hepatitis C, and they saw that we had surgery two days apart, that the investigation began to look more seriously at Rose."
By early May, state investigators were poring over the hospital's records of both surgeries. After some delays involving blood tests, Rose officials were notified on June 2 of a hepatitis C investigation centering on the hospital's operating rooms. After more reviews of patient and employee files, the hunt focused on Kristen Diane Parker, a 26-year-old OR scrub tech who'd tested positive for hepatitis C — and had been fired in April for drug use.
Questioned by state health officials and Denver police, Parker admitted stealing fentanyl, a potent painkiller used in many surgical procedures. She'd swipe the syringe right off the cart in the operating room when the anesthesiologist's back was turned, she said, substituting a syringe filled with saline. Often the needle she put out for the patient was one she'd already used on herself. Parker had been suspended in April after being caught in an operating room where she didn't belong, then fired when she tested positive for fentanyl. Two weeks later, she was hired at Audubon Surgery Center in Colorado Springs, where she continued to steal drugs and leave dirty needles for patients.
Parker told the detectives she couldn't put a number to how many times she'd done the switch since she'd started at Rose last October. Asked why she did it, she shrugged. "I wish I knew," she said. "I've had trouble with drugs in the past."