ENGLEWOOD - Roughly 2,900 people who had surgery at Swedish Medical Center the past five months are being notified that they need to be tested for HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C as part of an investigation into a now-former surgical technician.
Spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Mark Salley confirmed the investigation that's under way involves the possible diversion of drugs by that former employee. 9NEWS is not naming the technician because he has not been arrested or charged.
Swedish is contacting patients that hospital officials believe could have been exposed to the diseases. All of those patients had surgery at the hospital between Aug. 17, 2015 and Jan. 22, 2016.
In June, Patrick Evans had a stroke and became paralyzed. He was treated at Swedish Hospital.
"I mean it's difficult enough that I have a new life in a wheelchair and I have to learn how to live differently right now," he said. "Having this happen is pretty devastating."
In a statement issued by the hospital in response to questions from 9NEWS, Swedish officials said they had "no evidence of any patient exposure" but were "taking a position of extreme caution by offering free testing to all patients who had surgery at Swedish Medical Center in locations where this individual worked at any time during this individual's employment, including those days the employee was not on the schedule or in the facility."
"We deeply regret that one of our former employees may have put patients at risk, and are sorry for any uncertainty or anxiety this may cause," Richard A. Hammett, President and CEO of Swedish Medical Center, said in the statement. "Please know our first concern is the health, care, safety and privacy of our patients and we are working diligently to look after the wellbeing of the patients who may have been affected by the wrongful actions of this individual."
One former Swedish patient, who requested anonymity, said he received a phone call Wednesday informing him of the situation. He said he was frustrated because hospital officials would not tell him whether the surgical technician was infected with any of the diseases, saying that would violate his privacy rights.
That patient also said that he was told a criminal investigation is under way.
Swedish administrators notified the Colorado Department of Health and Environment of the situation on Jan. 23, Salley said.
Patients will be asked to have their blood tested for all three of these possible infections, Salley said.
The new investigation brings to mind the case of Kristen Parker, a former surgical technician who infected numerous people with hepatitis C in 2008 and 2009.
Parker, who worked at Rose Medical Center in Denver and Audubon Ambulatory Surgical Center in Colorado Springs, infected at least 18 people with hepatitis C after stealing the powerful painkiller fentanyl and then refilling syringes with a saline solution.
Parker, who was infected with hepatitis C, used her dirty needles in the process.
Scott Patzer was tested as a result of the Parker case, and will go through another round of testing after being treated at Swedish this summer.
"It was definitely a shocking thing to go through at the time, and now obviously to have it happen a second time is, you just kind of wonder, what am I doing wrong?" he said.
In another case, a former Boulder Community Hospital nurse, Ashton Daigle, was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in federal prison after he stole painkillers from surgical patients and sometimes gave them unsterilized tap water in their place.
Like Parker, he was stealing fentanyl. He had faced up to life in prison, but he cooperated in the investigation and he did not spread communicable diseases to any patient.
According to the World Health Organization, hepatitis B is a "potentially life-threatening liver infection" that puts people at high risk of dying from cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Hepatitis C is less likely to be life-threatening – somewhere between 15 and 45 percent of the people who contract it spontaneously clear the virus within six months of infection. However, patients can develop chronic disease, and if they do they are at risk for cirrhosis, according to the WHO.
HIV weakens a person's immune system and can lead to AIDS. While there is no known cure, the disease can be controlled with proper medical care, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Swedish released the following statement to 9NEWS:
Swedish Medical Center recently identified a potential drug diversion (the stealing of narcotic pain medication intended for patients) by a former employee, which prompted an immediate and thorough investigation involving several regulatory agencies. We also notified law enforcement.
We are working closely with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on an investigation of the actions of that former employee who may have put some of our surgery patients at risk for exposure to HIV, hepatitis B, or hepatitis C, viruses that can potentially cause long-term health concerns. At this point we have no evidence of any patient exposure; however, we are taking a position of extreme caution by offering free testing to all patients who had surgery at Swedish Medical Center in locations where this individual worked at any time during this individual's employment, including those days the employee was not on the schedule or in the facility.
Approximately 2,900 patients who had surgery at Swedish Medical Center between August 17, 2015 and January 22, 2016 are receiving calls and letters to notify them of the potential for exposure and to request that they take a free, confidential blood test to screen for these viruses. We are taking these extensive measures to ensure the safety of our patients, our staff, and our community.
"We appreciate the cooperation we have received as we work through our investigative process," said Dr. Larry Wolk, Executive Director and Chief Medical Officer at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. "We join Swedish Medical Center in prioritizing patient safety as we work collaboratively through this situation."
"We deeply regret that one of our former employees may have put patients at risk, and are sorry for any uncertainty or anxiety this may cause," said Richard A. Hammett, President and CEO, Swedish Medical Center. "Please know our first concern is the health, care, safety and privacy of our patients and we are working diligently to look after the wellbeing of the patients who may have been affected by the wrongful actions of this individual."
9Wants to Know is investigating. If you know anyone who has received a call from Swedish, please call 303-871-1799 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
9NEWS Reporter Whitney Wild contributed to this story.
(© 2016 KUSA)