CONCORD, N.H. — Concluding one of the most egregious cases of misconduct by a medical technician, a federal judge sentenced a former Exeter Hospital employee to 39 years in prison Monday for an elaborate drug-stealing scheme that infected 45 patients in three states with hepatitis C.
Under a plea deal announced in August, David Kwiatkowski, a 34-year-old traveling medical worker, had agreed to a sentence ranging from 30 to 40 years. One of his victims, an elderly woman from Kansas, has since died, and her death has been linked to the liver-attacking virus she contracted from Kwiatkowski.
During a nearly four-hour hearing, Kwiatkowski betrayed little emotion as some 20 victims and their family members from New Hampshire, Maryland, and Kansas spoke, many tearfully, about how his actions had devastated their lives. One elderly male victim labeled him a “sociopath,” while the wife of another called him an “evil monster.”
Each asked US District Judge Joseph Laplante to impose at least the maximum sentence allowed by the plea deal.
“I hope in the future I will find forgiveness, but that has yet to come,” said Connie Murphy McNeal, whose 89-year-old mother’s death has been tied to the hepatitis she contracted at Hays Medical Center in Kansas, where Kwiatkowski once worked.
David Holley of Raymond, N.H., who works in medical device sales, said that since he developed hepatitis C, his professional and personal lives have fallen apart. He has suffered liver damage and is plagued by fatigue and depression. “This entire event has engulfed my thoughts for the last 23 months,” he said.
Before Kwiatkowski was sentenced, the Michigan native accepted Laplante’s offer to address the court.
“I don’t blame the families for hating me; I hate myself,” he said, facing the audience and reading from a prepared statement. “I’m sorry.”
Kwiatkowski, a graduate of Madonna University in Livonia, Mich., added that he never hurt anyone intentionally and had originally entered the health care field to help people. “My addiction took that away from me,” he said.
His lawyers have said that Kwiatkowski’s drug problems started when he was given prescription painkillers in his late teens for Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory disorder of the intestines, and his reliance on these drugs went awry. They say he had never received long-term treatment for his substance problem, except for a 17-day detox program when he was in his mid-20s.
In announcing the sentence, Laplante said Kwiatkowski in many ways deserved the maximum of 40 years because the widespread scope of his actions reflected cruelty, even sadism. “There’s a component that goes beyond recklessness,” he said.
But Laplante added that he shaved a year off the maximum “just as a token” and hoped that Kwiatkowski, as he ages in prison, remembers the one year of incarceration that he was spared. “People do have the capacity for mercy and compassion,” Laplante said.
Prosecutors said Kwiatkowski knew he carried hepatitis C at least since 2010, yet stole potent painkillers in a way that spread the disease to vulnerable patients undergoing heart procedures. Kwiatkowski took syringes loaded with the painkiller fentanyl off trays prepared for patients undergoing procedures including cardiac catheterization. To avoid detection, he put back old syringes, which he had previously used to inject himself and were tainted with hepatitis C.
When those syringes were used on patients, they were not only exposed to the virus, but they did not get the pain medication they needed.
Kwiatkowski worked in about 20 hospitals in eight states, and his last job was at Exeter Hospital in Exeter, N.H. He was stopped there only after health officials noticed a suspicious spike in the number of patients contracting hepatitis C, and an investigation of patient blood samples showed that they had the same strain as Kwiatkowski’s. He was arrested in summer 2012.
Subsequently, investigators learned that staff at least two other hospitals where Kwiatkowski worked, one in Pennsylvania and one in Arizona, had witnessed his drug-stealing ways but did not aggressively pursue legal charges or make sure he got treatment after he was dismissed. Two temporary staffing agencies, which had assigned him to those hospitals, also became aware of his addiction but did little to prevent him from working elsewhere, the Globe reported last year.
Though the judge’s remarks Monday focused on Kwiatkowski’s culpability, Laplante also directed criticism at the hospitals and others that he said could have done more to stop him sooner.
“They dealt with it as a personnel matter,” Laplante said.
Some hospitals and staffing agencies are named in ongoing civil lawsuits filed by victims. Other civil cases have been settled out of court.
Many of the victims said they were frustrated that Kwiatkowski appeared so stoic during the proceedings, wondering if he really understood their anguish. Some described the painful treatments they have undergone for the virus, while others spoke of their paranoia about accidentally infecting others with hepatitis C, which is typically spread through blood.
“Becoming a junkie and an alcoholic somehow robbed you of your humanity and your regard for the people you were treating,” said Jean Burke, whose husband, Richard, 63, was infected while a patient at Exeter Hospital. “Now that you’re sober, we’re here to remind you that the people that you affected are real. We are not faceless statistics.”