Updated: January 18, 2010 at 12:00 am
DENVER — A surgery technician who infected three dozen people with hepatitis C and may have exposed thousands of others by switching used syringes with ones filled with a powerful painkiller says she got careless while at two Colorado hospitals and doesn't expect to be forgiven.
Ahead of a hearing where she'll be sentenced to 20 years in prison, Kristen Diane Parker described for prosecutors how she slipped through a hospital's drug screening process and began stealing drugs as she coped with a heroin addiction.
"I can't ask for forgiveness," a tearful Parker, 27, told Assistant U.S. Attorney Jaime Pena during a videotaped interview Jan. 11. "I don't expect anybody to forgive me for what I've done. You know, I'm human. I was a drug addict."
Parker pleaded guilty to tampering with a consumer product and obtaining a controlled substance by deceit or subterfuge. She admitted stealing syringes filled with Fentanyl from operating carts while employed at Denver's Rose Medical Center and Colorado Springs' Audubon Surgery Center.
Parker told prosecutors she injected herself with the Fentanyl, then replaced it with saline. She said she intended to put the saline in clean needles but got careless.
Prosecutors say her scheme exposed nearly 6,000 patients at the two hospitals to the incurable liver disease. Thirty-six of them got infected.
"It really doesn't matter if it's one or 30," author and freelance writer Pat Criscito of Monument, south of Denver, said Saturday, adding she thought Parker should have faced attempted murder charges. "There are some people who are not going to live as long as they were going to because of her." Criscito was one of the thousands tested but her case turned out negative.
Investigations also were launched in Mount Kisco, N.Y., and in Houston, where Parker previously worked. Parker told prosecutors she stole no syringes at her first scrub tech job in Houston but started the practice at her second job at Northern Westchester Hospital in New York. There, she said she took care to fill clean, unused syringes with saline to replace the Fentanyl-filled syringes she stole from operating carts.
Fentanyl is 80 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
About 2,800 patients at Northern Westchester were advised to get tested for hepatitis C. Hospital spokesman Mark Vincent didn't return a phone message; but in a statement in October, the hospital said it doesn't believe any of its patients got the disease from Parker.
In Houston, an investigation found no cases linked to Parker, Harris County health department spokeswoman Rita Obey said Friday.
Parker's sentencing hearing is set for Friday in federal court in Denver.
Parker described on the videotape how she got fired from her jobs in Houston and New York for performance issues and altercations with co-workers. She said she planned to move back home with her parents in Elizabeth, Colo., but she had to wait in New Jersey until she resolved theft and larceny charges against her in New York. She said those cases involved stealing diapers and groceries after she lost her job.
Parker said she may have gotten hepatitis C from sharing needles while using heroin in New Jersey. She said she last used heroin Sept. 21, 2008, when she shot up in a New Jersey airport before boarding a plane to Colorado.
By the time she was offered a job at Rose Medical Center, Parker says she was certain the heroin was out of her system and she would pass a urine analysis.
She did, and she began work in October 2008. But there was another complication: Hospital officials told Parker she may have hepatitis C. They told her to get checked by a doctor and gave her some paperwork.
"I probably didn't even read it," she said. "I was in denial. ... It was like, 'If I don't face it, and I don't confront it, it's not there.'"
Parker maintains she didn't know she had hepatitis C.
Within days of starting at Rose, Parker said she began stealing syringes from medical carts, at first taking care to replace them with clean needles, then losing track.
"I kept (them) in my pocket, and it got to a point where I'd have clean syringes, clean needles in there, but I also had the dirty ones that I used as well. ... They're all in the same pocket. They all look the same. ... I'd pull it out and look at it, and go, OK."
Parker said she shot up in the bathroom anytime she could, and admitted she knew the patients she stole drugs from were experiencing pain based on the graphs on their medical monitors.
"There's no remorse," Criscito said. "Anybody who can do that in the first place is extremely self-centered. She's only thinking of herself and her drug needs."
Parker came under suspicion after a syringe in her pocket pricked a co-worker. She was fired from Rose and got hired a few weeks later at Audubon in Colorado Springs, about 65 miles south of Denver.
She worked at Audubon only briefly, until she was arrested in June after Colorado health officials linked her to hepatitis C cases at Rose. Investigators have said one case at Audobon may be linked to Parker.
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne disease that can cause serious liver problems, including cirrhosis or liver cancer. ymptoms can include nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, pain and jaundice.