AP: Lab tech's arrest in hepatitis C outbreak shows flaws in system

This undated photo provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Hampshire shows David Kwiatkowski, a former lab technician at Exeter, N.H., Hospital, arrested at a hospital in Massachusetts where he is receiving medical treatment. Kwiatkowski, originally from Michigan, was charged Thursday, July 19, 2012, with causing a hepatitis C outbreak involving at least 30 patients who were treated at Exeter Hospital's cardiac catheterization lab. AP Photo/U.S. Attorney's Office

David Kwiatkowski
This undated photo provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Hampshire shows David Kwiatkowski, a former lab technician at Exeter, N.H., Hospital, who is accused of causing a hepatitis C outbreak.
AP Photo/U.S. Attorney's Office

(AP) CONCORD, N.H. - Radiology technician David Kwiatkowski was a few weeks into a temporary job at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center-Presbyterian in 2008 when a co-worker accused him of lifting a syringe containing an addictive painkiller from an operating room and sticking it down his pants.

More syringes were found in his pockets and locker. A drug test showed he had fentanyl and other opiates in his system.

In what may be the scariest part of all, authorities say that when he swiped the fentanyl syringe, he left another one in its place, filled with a dummy fluid, ready to be used on a patient.

But Kwiatkowski did not go to jail. No one in Pittsburgh even called the police. Neither the hospital nor the medical staffing agency that placed him in the job informed the national accreditation organization for radiological technicians.

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So just days after being fired, he was able to start a new job at a Baltimore hospital. And from there, he went from one hospital to another - 10 hospitals altogether in the four years after he was fired in Pittsburgh. All of them told The Associated Press they had no knowledge of his disciplinary history when they hired him for temporary jobs.

The potentially grave cost of those loopholes became clear only after Kwiatkowski's arrest last month in New Hampshire, where he stands accused of infecting at least 31 Exeter Hospital patients with hepatitis C by stealing fentanyl syringes and replacing them with dirty ones tainted with his blood.

Now, thousands of hospital patients who may have crossed paths with Kwiatkowski in eight states - Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania - are being tested to see if they, too, are infected with hepatitis C, a sometimes life-threatening virus that can destroy the liver and cause cancer.

As the Kwiatkowski case demonstrates, medical technicians aren't as closely regulated as doctors or nurses, and there is no nationwide database of misconduct or disciplinary actions against them, the way there is for physicians.

"It seems that what happens in Pittsburgh stays in Pittsburgh," said Barbara Yeninas, a spokeswoman for Springboard Healthcare Staffing and Search, one of at least seven medical staffing agencies that lined up jobs for Kwiatkowski. "They get hired and they get fired and they can move on to wherever else they want."

As Kwiatkowski made his way from one institution to another, the Pittsburgh incident was not even the only time he was accused of stealing drugs and fired.

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Kwiatkowski, 33, became a radiology technician in 2003 in his home state of Michigan after completing a training program. He earned a degree two years later from Madonna University in Livonia, where he was a catcher on the baseball team and became one of the small school's all-time leaders in two inglorious categories: passed balls and steals allowed.

Former teammate Mario D'Herin said Kwiatkowski was regarded as a liar. At one point, he claimed to have cancer.

"Then he said it was Crohn's disease, and it was like the boy who cried wolf - nobody really believed him," D'Herin said.

In court papers, the FBI said he admitted making up several stories about his life, telling people he had played his college ball at the University of Michigan or saying he had a fiancee who died tragically. Investigators could find no evidence he was treated for cancer.

Kwiatkowski's parents told investigators their son had problems with alcohol, anger and depression. They also believed he had Crohn's disease, a painful bowel condition sometimes treated with fentanyl patches.

Through jail officials, Kwiatkowski declined to be interviewed. His court-appointed lawyer would not comment. Nor would his mother in Canton Township, Mich.

Kwiatkowski has pleaded not guilty to stealing drugs and tampering with needles in New Hampshire. He told investigators he was innocent and suggested that a co-worker had planted a fentanyl syringe found in his car.

"I've already said it. I did not take any drugs or do any drugs ... and I'm gonna stick to that," he said, according to the FBI account.

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