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No Mercy for Tech Who Gave Patients Hepatitis

(CN) - A hospital technician who contracted hepatitis C through heroin abuse, and then transmitted the incurable disease to patients by injecting herself with powerful pain medication via syringes that were later used during the patients' surgeries, cannot overturn her 30-year prison sentence, the 10th Circuit ruled.

Kristen Parker tested positive for hepatitis on her first day of work in 2008 as a "scrub tech" for Rose Medical Center. She has said she probably contracted the disease by sharing heroin needles, a practice that developed during a long history of substance abuse that she says started with a prescription for painkillers after jaw surgery in 2001.

While Parker worked at the Denver hospital, she repeatedly stole fentanyl from operating room anesthesia carts, injected the painkiller into her system with syringes, and returned those used syringes to the carts.

Fentanyl is a controlled substance - a powerful, synthetic, opioid painkiller 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

Parker was fired after testing positive for the drug in March 2009. Staff had caught her acting suspiciously about a month after a nurse was stuck by a needle in Parker's pocket. Parker used the same tactics to get drugs at the next hospital that hired her, the Audubon Surgical Center in Colorado Springs.

Around that time, the Colorado Department of Health began investigating an outbreak of Hepatitis C. After Parker was indicted in August 2009, her former employers contacted about 6,000 patients who could have been exposed to Parker's strain of hepatitis C. Genetic testing of 17 patients who tested positive for the disease showed a 97 percent chance that their strain was genetically linked to Parker's. Another seven or eight patients, who had no other risk factors besides proximity to Parker, also tested positive but did not undergo the genotyping or viral sequencing analysis.

The judge at Parker's sentencing hearing had no sympathy for the woman, rejecting her plea bargain and sentencing her to 30 years imprisonment, instead of the 20 recommended in sentencing guidelines.

"Addiction explains but it never excuses," the judge had said, noting that Parker chose a life of drugs, despite having grown up in a loving, supportive middle-class household.

"The repeated theft and abuse of fentanyl, one of the most puissant drugs on the planet for selfish, personal gratification to get high while exposing so many innocent, unsuspecting, undeserving people to this insidious and incurable disease is as incomprehensible as it is unconscionable," the Colorado judge had said, according to a transcript quoted by the 10th Circuit. "She finally and thankfully got caught."

Parker appealed the February 2010 sentence, calling it unreasonable and an abuse of discretion. But the 10th Circuit's three-judge panel upheld the sentence in a Feb. 18 order.

The ruling states that the lower court did not consider Parker's addiction as an aggravating factor.

"We cannot conclude that the District Court's consideration of Parker's history and characteristics was unreasonable in light of the totality of the circumstances," Judge Carlos Lucero wrote for the court. "Defendants with substance abuse problems are no strangers to the federal courts, yet Parker's crime stands out as particularly repugnant. Parker displayed a callous disregard for human suffering. By stealing fentanyl from operating carts, Parker deprived surgical patients of needed anesthesia. At least one of her victims awoke mid-surgery in severe pain."

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