When Drug Addicts Work in Hospitals, No One Is Safe; Medical Technician David Kwiatkowski Shares His Night-Shift Junkie Story

By Eichenwald, Kurt | Newsweek, June 26, 2015 | Go to article overview

When Drug Addicts Work in Hospitals, No One Is Safe; Medical Technician David Kwiatkowski Shares His Night-Shift Junkie Story


Eichenwald, Kurt, Newsweek


Byline: Kurt Eichenwald

Gripping the drug-filled syringe, David Kwiatkowski furtively glanced around to confirm that none of his co-workers could see him. Then Kwiatkowski, a radiology technician at Arizona Heart Hospital, darted into an employee locker room, found an empty bathroom stall and locked himself inside. Sweat dripped from his face, and his stomach churned; he desperately needed a fix. Minutes earlier, he had snagged one of the syringes nurses preloaded with drugs before leaving them unattended in the operating room. It was labeled "fentanyl," an opiate many times more potent than heroin and Kwiatkowski's latest narcotic of choice.

It was about 3 o'clock in the afternoon on April 1, 2010, when Kwiatkowski screwed a hypodermic onto the syringe, placed the needle almost flat against his right arm and slid it into a vein. Slowly, he pushed the plunger, eagerly anticipating relief as the 50 micrograms of fentanyl bathed his brain.

Suddenly, he knew something had gone wrong. With only half the dose injected, Kwiatkowski felt a tingle in his feet, then in his hands. This wasn't fentanyl. The nurses had placed the wrong sticker on the syringe. As his muscles drooped, Kwiatkowski realized he had just injected succinylcholine, a powerful paralytic. That kind of labeling error could have killed a patient. Now, Kwiatkowski knew, he was the one who might die.

He pulled the syringe out of his arm and dropped it in the toilet before falling face first into the stall's metal door. He hit the ground, and his head flopped out from under the partition. As the drug paralyzed more muscles, Kwiatkowski could no longer breathe, though he was fully conscious. Thirty seconds passed. A medical technician entered the room, saw Kwiatkowski and screamed for help. Just as the technician was preparing to perform CPR, the paralysis eased up. By stopping the injection halfway, Kwiatkowski had taken only a small dose. He took a breath. "Shit," he said. "Shit, I'm going to jail."

A few minutes later, Kwiatkowski sat up and flushed the toilet in hopes no one would find the syringe and suspect he had been using drugs. Junkie logic.

Then there was a blur of activity. A stretcher. The emergency room. The medical technician saw the syringe in the toilet with the fentanyl label still attached. A representative showed up from Springboard, the Phoenix agency that had placed Kwiatkowski at the hospital. Under questioning, Kwiatkowski spun a ridiculous story filled with lies. Someone called the police, but the hospital refused to cooperate--a good business decision, since an audit two months earlier revealed that a nurse there had been stealing narcotics, and Arizona Heart obviously had not yet fixed the problem. Kwiatkowski left with the Springboard representative, and they drove to a nearby bar.

Downing multiple glasses of Crown Royal whiskey, Kwiatkowski knew his time in Phoenix was over. Drugs and booze had cost him another job, but no matter; that's why he was "a traveler," a technician who agencies place on short-term contracts at hospitals around the country. He knew that, probably out of liability concerns, Arizona Heart would never file an official report that might cost him his radiology tech license; none of the hospitals ever did.

Kwiatkowski returned to his hotel, booted up his laptop and did a quick Internet search. A staffing agency had a listing for a job in Philadelphia. He filled out the online application and went to bed.

The next morning, the telephone rang in Kwiatkowski's hotel room. On the line was a representative from Advantage RN, who said, "Can you start Monday?"

Addicts in Lab Coats

And so it continued, month after month, year after year, as Kwiatkowski crisscrossed the United States, landing temporary jobs at hospitals that soon discovered his drug addictions, then quietly sent him on his way. But what makes this more than just another tale of medical irresponsibility and cover-ups is an alarming fact: Kwiatkowski was one of the 1. …

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