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Nurses steal drugs, put patients at risk

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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.

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"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.

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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.

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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.

14 comments

  • Mel

    Yep, human. And addicts, dirty rotten stealing lying addicts. Can’t believe I have a chronic pain condition with nerve damage and am told I am the problem with opiates and these people get to steal with no jailtime!? Ugh, that’s narcotics trafficking, theft, grand theft and a severe violation of federal law!? How come they just get sent to rehab? Not fair.

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  • Angie

    This is probably one of the most insulting news articles I have ever read. I am a nurse, who works with narcotics every day. I have NEVER, EVER considered using them. By the way, there is a name for when addicted nurses utilize drugs intended for patients. It’s called “Diversion” and our healthcare system spends a good amount of money and effort to ensure it doesn’t happen in our organization and, if it does, it is handled correctly. To imply because we are around narcotics and have “access” somehow makes a nurse more susceptible to diversion is ridiculous. To have approximately 104 nurses in state corrective action among the 80K registered nurses in WI hardly defines a significant problem over the general population, in fact, seems to me that those numbers are much lower than the general community. Also, if you are going to an expose about drug addicted nurses, why not broaden your horizons and include the MD’s and pharmacists? It’s much more scandalous to imply that just nurses do it as we are one of the most respected professions around. Thanks again.

    • Jennifer

      AMEN! I, too, am a nurse who believes that there is a problem to be dealt with. However, to report it in this manner is irresponsible and creates the idea that no matter where one seeks healthcare, their nurse is likely a junkie! I take offense to that notion and like you, would never, ever think of stealing/diverting/using any of the medications I work with. How dispicable. Just shows again how stupid the media are and that they only write/report for sensationalism.

    • Mel

      I respect you for standing up to the story but in reality there are MANY more addicts than we would like to imagine. Just because you get access doesn’t mean you are taking the drugs. But more often then not diversion happens on a regular basis. I would like to see the investigations in to politicians, lawyers and doctors who are on drugs as well. Probably won’t EVER happen because we would be appalled. And it is deplorable that they are allowed to get away with NO JAIL time just because of a degree.

    • Kristen

      104 in corrective action by the board of nursing out of 80,000 nurses or so in the state?? Doesn’t sound so bad because nurses are human too and addiction can be an issue with anyone. Probably better than the rest of the population.

  • CG

    Yup lets keep bashing nurses; maybe if I put on my nursing costume and my doctor’s stethescope it won’t be so bad. Every profession has its degree of trials and struggles. I have been a nurse for 30+ years–why don’t you focus on the good that the health care porfession does, and seek to reform safe patient to nurse ratios?–why not focus on what can help nurses be more affective rather than the negative??? Drug abuse in the profession is the exception to the rule not the norm. But again the media needs somthing to blow out of proportion.

  • Wez RN

    This is an insulting and sensationalist article, narcotic diversion is a problem, however the tone of this article implies that it is the norm for nurses rather than the exception to the rule. This is irresponsible journalism and horrible writing, very disappointed in this site for this article.

  • Kristin Waite-Labott

    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.

    • Mandy

      I hope you see this Kristin… as a fellow addict in recovery I would like to Thank you for putting yourself out there and trying to help the communtiy. I hope you Ignore all the hateful comments. They seem to come from ignorance regarding addiction. Truth is by putting yourself, and this information, out there you are helping many people. Messages such as this give hope to addicts (whether nurses or not) in such a hopeless time. Thank you.

      • Kristin Waite-Labott

        Hi Mandy, thank you for the vote of confidence. It was hard to do but i do not regret it, even with the negative feedback. Whether or not people like the story, it has got them talking about addiction and hopefully through that conversation someone will get the help they need. All my best to you!

  • Mandy

    So much judgement going on here. THAT is the problem! This article is not attacking anyone. Especially not people who are taking their prescriptions as medically intended, not the nurses that AREN’T addicts, so there is no reason for all of the comments from those groups to be so defensive. This article is trying to shed light upon a growing epidemic. It happens to feature a nurse, who is also an addict, trying to reach out to individuals with the same demons to get them the help they need. Addiction isn’t biased, it hits HUMANS. It doesnt care if you’re male, female, black, white, yellow, or purple. Doesn’t care if you’re a nurse, librarian, factory worker, banker, stay at home parent, lawyer, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, etc. That is the point.. no one sets out to be, but ANYONE can become an addict. This woman, Kristin Waite-Labott, is just sharing her story about her experience in her line of work (which happens to be nursing) Hoping to shed some light on a growing problem, and help who she can in the process. she’s not judging anyone.. there was/is no need for the vicious, judgemental attacks.

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