Sherry Gorman may never know whether she infected her patients with the deadly hepatitis C virus. She is haunted by the horrible reality that she may have stuck contaminated needles into the veins of unsuspecting people who trusted her.
“I felt remorse and regret. You feel a certain amount of guilt. Whether you think you did it or not, you just feel bad that someone was under your care and something bad happened,” says Gorman, speaking publicly about the experience for the first time.
That something was, by all accounts, very bad. In June 2010, Gorman, now 43 years old, was working as an anesthesiologist at several Denver hospitals, including Rose Medical Center, when she was sued by a former patient for medical negligence. The patient, Joshua Kraft, said he was in the hospital to have a tumor removed and contracted hepatitis C when Gorman injected him with a contaminated needle.
Gorman, who settled out of court, was among more than a dozen anesthesiologists who were the target of lawsuits filed over a period of a year and a half in a bizarre case that rocked the city. In the final tally, three dozen patients contracted hepatitis C, and some 6,000 more were exposed to the virus. The contamination was ultimately traced back to a scrub technician named Kristen Parker. Police reports show Parker, then 27, was stealing syringes filled with fentanyl, a powerful painkiller; injecting herself; refilling the dirty syringes with saline water; and putting them back, and then they would be used by unsuspecting anesthesiologists on unsuspecting patients. Parker is serving a 30-year sentence for tampering with a consumer product and obtaining a controlled substance by deceit or subterfuge. Prosecutors dismissed 28 other charges as part of a plea deal.
The case sparked debate about so-called drug diversion, or the abuse of medication within the health-care system and among health-care providers, and about the way hospitals and doctors store and dispense medicine. Gorman says she used to keep her loaded syringes in an unlocked drawer in the operating room. She says other doctors kept theirs in fanny packs and personal bags or laid them out on an operating table with only a towel to conceal them.
“At that time, we didn’t think about locking drawers,” she says. “No one ever told me I was doing anything wrong. If there were rules to enforce locking the drugs up, they were not enforced.” Rose has said it sent memos to its anesthesiologists in 2001 and again after Parker’s crime, warning them “never leave controlled substances unlocked or unattended.”
After the syringe-swapping incident, there was a federal review of the medication security policies at Rose. Today the hospital requires doctors to present a passcode and have their fingerprints scanned to get any drug in the operating room. In a statement to The Daily Beast, Rose said, “We continue to educate our staff and physicians and evaluate our safety measures constantly.”
The hepatitis C infections cast a cloud over the reputation of Rose Medical Center, considered one of Denver’s finest facilities. The first instance was in October 2008, on Parker’s second day on the job. It ended six months later when Parker was caught in an operating room where she didn’t belong, given a blood test, and fired.
When police asked Parker what kind of advice she would have for doctors like Sherry Gorman to keep them from falling prey to junkies like her, she told them, “Be more aware of what you leave lying around.”
Gorman says she was shocked that “one of their own” would steal narcotics out from under their noses and swap the syringes. She believes the crime was unprecedented. In her deposition, she told plaintiffs attorneys that she considered drug diversion an “urban legend” and a “folktale.” But John Burke, president of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators, says although the incidents at Rose were unusual, drug theft by health-care workers is nothing new, and Gorman’s statements sound naive to him: “We’ve been doing these kinds of investigations since 1999. This is no urban legend.”
Gorman regrets using those words and says they were taken out of context, uttered at the end of a grueling eight-hour deposition. “I would never diminish what happened to those patients.”
For those patients, getting treated at Rose was like inadvertently playing a game of Russian roulette. Patients went in one day to have surgery for everything from vein reconstruction to back pain, and within weeks, they learned their lives would never be the same. Lauren Lollini had kidney stones removed and ended up with hepatitis C. Joshua Kraft was a former Marine who was working at the local fire department and studying to be an EMT. Some of them were old and frail. Many had to endure a grueling 48-month treatment. For some, the treatment didn’t work.
Gorman, who kept a journal throughout the ordeal, has written a fictional account about it called It’s Nothing Personal, under a pseudonym. Now, she’s decided to break her silence using her real name. “Doctors are the second victims. It just hits you to your core. It hit me all the way through.”
That doesn’t sit well with Lollini. “She wants to talk about how she’s doing. What about how WE are doing? She was part of problem.”
Gorman, in turn, blames Parker, whom she has never actually met or seen in an operating room. But she will never forget Parker’s sullen mug shot. “I think that she’s a monster.”