I-Team: Drug-Addicted Nurses
A big I-Team investigation uncovers drug-addicted nurses on duty... taking chances with the care you get.
In fact, it happens all the time: Nurses feeding their addictions, risking patients' safety to do it.
When you check into a hospital, there's already enough to worry about. Asking the nurse checking you out, "Hey, are you sober?" never even makes the list.
Their hands are on you long before the doctors'.
"What we do is so important, such important work," nurse Gina Dennik-Champion points out.
It's also intense work. Long hours, lots of patients, very little glamour. So why do it?
Nurse Rhonda Lowery told us, "Because I love to care for people."
But the I-team found, sometimes, that passion can give way to temptation.
The Wisconsin Nurses Association figures somewhere around 10% of the state's 80,000 licensed nurses battle addiction. Battles easy to lose while working in buildings stocked with narcotics.
"You got to get them out of the environment. You gotta confront them. You got to get them the necessary rehab, or they're no good to anybody," Champion told us.
And with everything going on around you in the hospital, odds are you wouldn't have a clue if your nurse is impaired.
Addictionologist Dr. Barry Spiegel says impaired nurses could make deadly mistakes. "Their judgment may be slightly off, or their memory may be slightly off, and they could write 20 instead of 200 for a dose, something as simple as that."
And impaired nurses often don't get caught until after they've made a mistake.
"In a hospital the consequences could be anything from minor to a fatality," Spiegel told us.
So how many do get caught? Over a four year period, from 2002 through 2006, the state took action against nearly 200 nurses for drug-related issues. There were more than a dozen repeat offenders. Everything from using illegal drugs, to showing up to work impaired, to stealing pain medications from facilities and patients for their own use.
"That's the double insult," says Marilyn Kaufmann with the Board of Nurses. "It's because they're apparently using them for their own gain, and I would guess that it's not truly for their own benefit. That nurse has an issue. That nurse is not well."
In each case, the state suspended or revoked the nurse's license. The most serious cases wound up in court.
We caught up with Barbara Hansen in a Washington County courtroom. She's facing six felony charges for stealing morphine, a strong narcotic, from St. Joseph Hospital in the Town of Polk.
In a statement to police, Hansen admitted she is an addict and stole the meds from a machine designed to keep the drugs secure. Hansen told police she bypassed the machine's safeguards, used a needle to remove the morphine, replaced the drug with saline, then put the tampered bottles back in the drawer.
I-team cameras caught up with Hansen on her way out of court. She didn't want to answer any questions.
But the state still wants her to.
"Why would you do that?" Kaufmann asked. "To just let anybody that you are to be providing care for to be in pain unnecessarily."
Hansen kept running, no answers, just a dirty look. Her lawyer told me she's sorry and just wants to put it all behind her.
The hospital says no one got any compromised drugs. Bottom line: patients in this case got lucky.
But it's not just one hospital where patients were put at risk. Just last March an investigation at Kindred Hospital in Greenfield found someone tampered with 20 vials of narcotics. Things like Demerol and morphine and replaced them with saline. No arrests in that case, yet.
And in one mind-blowing case, a nurse up in northern Wisconsin was arrested last December after replacing oxycodone with a magnesium supplement.
That mistake could have killed someone.
More often than not, the nurses that get caught simply steal and use the meds themselves.
That's still a very big deal.
"I couldn't see somebody being impaired and working in that environment without making mistakes. I would think it has to happen at some point in time," Dr. Spiegel told us. Mistakes at a job that doesn't have much room for error.
And here's the scariest part... The 200 nurses the state disciplined over the last few years are just the ones we know about. And get this. A good number of those who do get caught wind up back at work seeing patients.