BRENTWOOD — The former roommate of a medical technician accused of spreading hepatitis C at Exeter Hospital is suing the hospital for wrongful termination after she was fired from her nursing position.
Kerry Descoteau said she was used as a “scapegoat” and denies she did anything wrong after the hospital suggested she may have played a role in the hepatitis outbreak that infected 32 patients with the potentially life-threatening liver disease.
In a suit filed last month in Rockingham County Superior Court, Descoteau insisted that she wasn’t involved in the outbreak and never should have been fired.
The suspect at the center of the case, David Kwiatkowski, lived with Descoteau at her Exeter home and worked with her at the hospital before he was fired and arrested on federal charges.
Kwiatkowski worked at as many as 18 hospitals as a travelling medical technician before landing a job at Exeter Hospital, where federal authorities have accused him of infecting 32 patients after allegedly stealing syringes filled with the painkiller fentanyl, using them on himself, and then replacing the dirty needles with a saline for reuse on patients.
The infections allegedly linked to Kwiatkowski were uncovered last May. He was arrested in July.
In her suit, Descoteau said she moved to Exeter seeking a “fresh start” with her two daughters following a divorce. During her brief employment, Descoteau met Kwiatkowski, who needed a place to stay. Since she needed help paying her mortgage, she allowed Kwiatkowski to move into her residence in November 2011.
“At no time did Ms. Descoteau notice anything about Mr. Kwiatkowski that would have suggested to her that he was diverting narcotics or doing or attempting to do anything illegal in nature,” the suit said.
After learning in June 2012 that Kwiatkowski was suspected of spreading the hepatitis, Descoteau told him to leave her place, which he did, the suit said.
According to her suit, Descoteau was hired as a registered nurse to work in the catheterization lab in June 2011.
Descoteau said the early part of her employment was “confusing and chaotic.”
During orientation, the suit said, Descoteau was trained in the hospital’s procedures for “wasting” excess, unused narcotic medications. According to the suit, Descoteau performed the procedure under the supervision of a “more senior nurse” who logged the medication wasted and the amount.
In June 2012, Descoteau was questioned by two state health employees about the hepatitis C outbreak linked to the catheterization lab. Later that day, the suit said, Descoteau was ordered to appear before a panel of hospital administrators and an independent investigator hired by the hospital.
“Ms. Descoteau answered all of their questions truthfully, to the best of her ability. She explained that she had performed more cases than the other nurses in the catheterization lab because she was new to the position and the supervisors were directing more cases to her as part of her training. Ms. Descoteau also explained that the two nurses who initially precepted her did not get along and that she was ‘passed around,’ or left to her own to figure things out after the first few months,” the suit said.
Descoteau was questioned repeatedly about the amount of the drug Fentanyl that she had wasted.
“Ms. Descoteau was not aware that her practice in wasting Fentanyl medication was unusual since she was following the procedure she had been taught at Exeter Hospital. This wasting was overseen by a preceptor, supervisor or more senior nurse and to the best of Ms. Descoteau’s knowledge and belief, all such wastage was approved and authorized by another supervising nurse and on the record,” the suit said.
The hospital then placed Descoteau on administrative leave, the suit said.
Descoteau, represented by Manchester attorney David Slawsky, also said that she has cooperated with police, FBI agents, Food and Drug Administration officials and federal and state prosecutors.
According to the suit, the hospital reported Descoteau to the New Hampshire Board of Nursing in July 2012 and accused her of professional misconduct based on her record of wasting narcotics.
The nursing board notified Descoteau in March that the complaint lodged by the hospital had been dismissed.
A week later, the suit said, Descoteau received a letter from the hospital informing her that she was being fired.
In the termination letter, the suit said the hospital said it had “credible suspicion” that Descoteau “may have contributed” to the hepatitis outbreak, that a criminal investigation in which Descoteau was “materially involved” was pending, and that the firing was based on “considerable information about (her) practices involving controlled substances,” her “lack of candor in interviews with senior staff,” and a “failure to respond to inquiries for information from Exeter Hospital counsel.”
Descoteau has said that the hospital’s claims were false and misleading and will make it difficult or even impossible for her to find a new job.
The suit claims the firing was “motivated by bad faith, malice and/or retaliation.”
In a prepared statement, the hospital’s lawyer, Debra Weiss Ford of Portsmouth, said the hospital denies the allegations.
“Exeter Hospital vigorously denies the allegations in the complaint and intends to defend this case aggressively. The termination was specific to Kerry Descoteau. The hospital expects that the court will dismiss the matter at the appropriate time,” she wrote.
The hospital will have until June 30 to formally respond to the suit.