Nurses steal drugs, put patients at risk…

This week I had an opportunity to tell my story to a Fox 6 News investigative reporter, Meghan Dwyer. I was a bit nervous but decided to do it anyway to promote awareness and get the word out that there is help for addicted nurses. The story aired on November 19th, 2015. My initial reaction was positive. Prior to it airing, I worried that I would regret doing it. I absolutely do not. I don’t think it was perfect by any means and had I been writing the story I would have done things a bit differently, but all in all I thought it was good.

Now that I have had a chance to think about and re-watch the interview I have a few more thoughts…

While initially I was disappointed that Ms. Dwyer focused on individual nurses and their stories, I came to realize that the story was much more impactful this way. I think people are more likely to talk about it than if there were generalized stories without a personal attachment. About 9 years ago a reporter did the same thing to me. It was about a year into my recovery and things were going fairly well for me. I was clean and sober, working my 12 step program and feeling pretty good about life. I had a decent job as a medical assistant in a doctor’s office. I saw that Fox 6 was doing a story on nurses and drug abuse (or something like that) and decided to tune in. What I did not know that I was to be featured in that story.  When I saw my mug shot flash across the screen, heard my name and what they had to say about me, I was mortified. I could not believe what I was seeing. They didn’t tell me they were going to do the story on me, they didn’t get my permission. They don’t have to of course, it is all public record. I talked to some program friends and got over it. I emailed the reporter and told him I was sober and doing well. He offered me an interview then but I turned it down, I wasn’t strong enough yet. Fast forward 9 years and I am strong enough now. Remembering my experience from 9 years ago, I asked Ms. Dwyer to contact the nurses she intended to feature in the story to let them know. She said she would and I can only hope she did. With a bit of forewarning, they could get some support before the story aired. So, that said, I think the personal stories were important so that people know that this is happening…a lot. It is a big deal and if it places fear in people, it probably should. There are many nurses (and doctors and pharmacist and surgical techs, etc…) that are working while addicted. They are stealing drugs and are putting their patients and coworkers at risk. The public needs to understand the scope of the problem, not to sensationalize the problem, but to raise awareness so we are forced to do something about it.

I do like, however, that Ms. Dwyer talked about the WI state Nursing Board’s Professional Assistance Program and put a link to in within the article. We have a unique opportunity in this state to get the help we need without losing our license and ability to provide for ourselves and our family. Anyone who joins this CONFIDENTIAL program is closely monitored and if they do not adhere to the strict rules, are removed from practice. Not many know about it. I didn’t know about it until I was already in trouble and it was too late for me to join the confidential program, mine had to be public. My hope is that addicted nurses will see this story or read the article and decide to get help confidentially before they are caught and can no longer hide behind the confidential wall.

I also like that Ms. Dwyer mentioned my book. Not for personal gain, but rather so others struggling with addiction know they are not alone. Maybe if they read the book they will see themselves within the pages and get the help they need before getting caught and losing practically everything. Should she have focused more on this solution rather than the problem? Maybe. But would anyone have listened then? Unfortunately in this world people are more inclined to pay attention when the story is dramatic. They may complain about it, but would they listen if the story was titled less sensationally? Would they continue to listen if the story only talked about the numbers, not the actual people involved? I am not sure they would.

Whatever your thoughts are on the story/article I hope we can all agree that there is a problem. If you want to say, like some have, that 104 nurses out of 80,000 isn’t such a big number, you are forgetting something. Those 104 are only the nurses that have been caught. Of the 80,000 nurses practicing in Wisconsin, there are as many as 8000 suffering from some kind of substance abuse. That means there are as many as 7896 still unaccounted for. These are the nurses we need to focus on. These are the nurses that most need our help. This story by Fox 6 News is just one of the things we can do to bring attention to the issue. What else can we do? It is up to us.

The story and article are below…

MILWAUKEE — In Wisconsin, impaired nurses are putting patients at risk — and it can be deadly.

A FOX6 review of state discipline records shows 104 Wisconsin nurses have been disciplined in just the last two years for either stealing narcotics or being high or drunk on the job. And those are just the nurses who have been caught. In one case, a patient died.

“We are proactively looking at this,” says Steven Rush, Vice President of Workforce and Clinic Practice at Wisconsin Hospital Association.

Dianne Hiller, a visiting nurse for a Milwaukee hospital, stole pills from her cancer patients.

Violet Thelen told investigators she popped eight Vicodin’s a day and would remove Fentanyl patches from patients’ bodies.

Amy Rich, a nurse at another Milwaukee hospital, would shoot up at work with Fentanyl and Dilaudid. She injected herself on the job so many times, she had track marks on her arms. The last time she got caught, she admitted this was not the first time she had addiction issues at work.

“I find it pretty appalling and certainly not the conduct you would expect of a nurse,” says Gina Dennik-Champion, president of the Wisconsin Nurses Association.

Stefanie Jones, a nurse at another hospital, was caught on camera removing morphine from vials and then refilling them with water — without using gloves.

A total of 42 patients were affected and five got a bacterial infection. Eventually, one died.

Nurse Jones told investigators she did it to escape her life.

Kristin Waite-Labott is a nurse who can relate.

Kristin Waite-Labott talks about the easy access she had to medications while a nurse at a Milwaukee hospital.

“I was putting my patients at risk,” Waite-Labott said.

“Nobody knew that I was using until they caught me stealing.”

In 2004, her marriage was on the rocks.

“It occurred to me one day when I was working in an emergency room that we throw away a lot of awfully good drugs,” Waite-Labott said.

Eventually she was caught and ended up in jail.

“I just couldn’t, I couldn’t stop it.”

But after ten years of sobriety, she said it’s time for the industry to really come clean.

“I think this is a huge problem and I don’t think there is a lot being done about it. Everything is very hush-hush. Nobody wants to talk about it,” Waite-Labott said.

That was certainly the case when we reached out to a handful of Milwaukee hospitals to discuss this story.  None of them would talk to us, and some never even responded.

The ones that did, punted the hard questions to the Wisconsin Hospital Association.

Steven Rush works for Wisconsin Hospital Association and is also a nurse.  Rush says nurses aren’t immune to what’s happening all over the country, given the skyrocketing abuse of prescription drugs, especially pain medicine and opiates.

“That’s a widely held myth that nurses are disproportionately more affected by this than the general population and that’s just simply not true,” Rush said.

But nurses do, he admits, have more access.

Which is why, over the years, it’s become more difficult for nurses to steal drugs. In some hospitals, you can’t even touch a narcotic unless you use your fingerprint.

“Every nurse’s every action leaves what we call an electronic footprint,” Rush said.

Pharmacies and computerized machines are constantly auditing medicine cabinets and looking for red flags.

“That is stressed at the time of new hires, talking about this,” Rush said. “These are things that we are observing, not could observe.”

But it is still happening all around the state; in hospitals, in nursing homes and, sometimes even in patient’s living rooms. And when it’s not the patients who are at risk, it’s the nurses themselves.

Our review of state discipline records shows not only do most of the nurses self-medicate, but some of them try to kill themselves at work. More than a few nurses at Wisconsin hospitals were found unconscious at work. Sometimes, despite internal audits, they steal pain medication for years before they get caught.

“Nurses are human,” Rush said.

While that can be their greatest strength when it comes to patient care, it can also be their biggest vulnerability, especially since their jobs put them in extremely stressful circumstances.

“I was always so nervous and so uptight that it just helped me to feel better,” Waite-Labott said.

Now sober, Waite-Labott has written a book for other nurses struggling to beat addiction.

Waite-Labott has finished writing a book that she hopes will help other nurses steer away from the temptation of drugs while on the job.

“You don’t have to end up like me and losing everything.”

Her message is simple — before you can help your patients, you might have to help yourself.

If you are a nurse who wants to get help, you can self-report your addiction to the Wisconsin State Board of Nursing through the Professional Assistance Program.

You can keep your license, and get help at the same time.  It’s one of the only programs like this in the entire country.  Currently, 36 nurses are being monitored.

“It’s monitoring, it’s continuing with their therapy, it’s continuing with their counseling,” says Dennik-Chamption. “It’s also about discovering who they are and what got them into this situation in the first place.”

There are more than 80,000 licensed nurses in Wisconsin. If you want to self-report an addiction, visit this website for more information.

If you want to read Waite-Labott’s book, you can find it on Amazon.

My comments to the comments that were left after the article…

I would like to reply to the comments below in a general sense. The problem of HEALTHCARE workers and addiction is a large one (not only nurses of course but because I am a nurse this was the focus of the story). It is an accepted statistic by the American Nurses Association that a minimum of 10% of nurses are addicted, and working. 104 were caught, but the other 7896 are still out there and that is where we need to focus our attention. I am certain those who commented below would never consider diverting drugs, but unfortunately many do. My message is one of hope, that if you are an addicted nurse (or other healthcare professional) there is help. You can self-report to the nursing board, get the help and monitoring you need, and keep your license. This is not meant to “bash” any nurse, but rather to bring to light a very invasive and detrimental problem that is plaguing our healthcare system. Nurses are among the most caring and yet vulnerable folks out there. I didn’t intend to become an addict, I was an excellent nurse, but it happened to me anyway, I made terrible choices and the consequences were severe. I spent 4 months in jail, as well I should have and suffered greatly. It took years to get back on my feet-again, as well it should have. I do not want to make excuses for anyone, but rather let those who are struggling with addiction know that there is a place they can go to get help before my experiences become their own.  Instead of being angry, let’s work together to find a solution.

About the Author

Kristin Waite-Labott is a registered nurse and recovering addict who has firsthand experience with the challenges of addiction. She now works as the Head Nurse Coach at Veritus, a virtual treatment program for nurses with substance use and mental health disorders, and is dedicated to helping nurses overcome addiction and making a difference in the lives of others. Kristin is passionate about addressing the growing problem of addiction among healthcare professionals and encourages open discussions and action to prevent it from spreading further.

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