Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Getting Sued: A Doctor's Experience

It was a cold winter day in 2009 when my life changed forever; however, it would be months before I figured that out.  On that fateful day, a drug-addicted surgical scrub tech assigned to my operating room allegedly stole syringes of fentanyl, a potent intravenous narcotic, from my anesthesia cart.  According to news reports, investigative summaries, and the scrub tech’s confession, once she took the syringes, she used them on herself.

It’s hard to fathom, but that’s not even the really sick and twisted part to this tale.  The scrub tech had hepatitis C, a blood-borne virus that attacks and, sometimes, destroys the liver.  Based on her own testimony, she knew she was positive for the virus.

Yet, after supposedly injecting herself with a drug intended for a vulnerable and innocent patient, she then allegedly chose to refill the syringe with saline.  Theoretically, the syringe was contaminated with her infected blood.

She then allegedly replaced the syringe in my cart.  If these allegations are true, and there is no way of knowing, there was no way I could have known that she had tampered with my drugs.  The syringes purportedly would have been in the same place where I left them, and both fentanyl and saline look identical.  So, on that unfortunate day, it is alleged that I injected a mixture of saline and hepatitis C into my patient’s bloodstream, instead of a painkiller. 

The following summer, the story made local and national headlines.  At least 5,000 patients were at risk for having been exposed to the virus.  Every anesthesiologist in my group secretly prayed that they weren’t involved.  The hospital went into extreme damage-control mode.  Tight restrictions and policies regarding the handling and securing of narcotics were strictly enforced.  Panicked patients were tested en masse for the potentially lethal virus.

A few months later, I received notice that I was being sued, along with the hospital.  Receiving the summons and the two-year ordeal that followed was, by far, the most painful, mortifying, demoralizing, and caustic event of my life.  Of course I grieved for the patient, but I had to do so in silence because any discussion of the event was forbidden, on the advice of my attorneys.  Never before would I have imagined the depths of shame, guilt, and self-doubt that I was capable of inflicting upon myself.

As the lawsuit evolved, the lawyers and the patient grew nastier and greedier.  My initial feelings of compassion and empathy dissolved into rage and betrayal.  I suffered through an eight-hour deposition with hostile attorneys where I was belittled, ridiculed, verbally abused, and intimidated.   Months later, I was emotionally beaten down, and I made the painful decision to settle.

At that point, it was no longer about right vs. wrong.

I just wanted the nightmare to end.  It was at that time, in the middle of settlement negotiations, that I was featured on the local television news station, only to be followed a week later by a front-page headline in the local paper.  Statements I made during my deposition were taken out of context.  The public commenters on the stories cried for my crucifixion.  I will never know this for certain, but the timing of the stories and their prejudicial slant reeked of a couple of reporters on the take.  I was made to look like a cold, heartless, reckless villain, whose patient was the innocent victim of my blatant negligence. 

I never got my day in court or the opportunity to explain that I’m not a monster.  I wish I could have explained that, before this happened I was a caring, compassionate, skilled, and highly qualified physician.  The manner in which I secured and stored my narcotics was identical to the manner in which most of my colleagues handled theirs.  We were all taught during residency that the operating room was a secure environment.  Furthermore, we were taught to have our drugs drawn up in advance of our cases, so as to be able to handle emergent and unforeseen events more expeditiously.

Now I am a shadow of my former self.  I’m bitter, defensive, cynical, and wounded.  I want to stress that in no way is this article intended to take away from the fact that a patient was hurt.  I was as much of a victim of the scrub tech’s crime as was my patient.  We just endured different kinds of injuries.  Mine were of the heart and soul and will never heal.

Note: I would greatly appreciate any feedback.  Also, if you have any questions or would like to schedule an interview regarding this or any other facet of life in the operating room, please contact me by email @ or visit my website@


Kate O’Reilley, M.D. is a practicing anesthesiologist in the Rocky Mountain region. In addition to being a physician, she has also written two books, both of which are medical thrillers. She plans on releasing her first book, “It’s Nothing Personal” in the near future. When not writing, blogging or passing gas, Kate spends her time with her daughter and husband. Together, they enjoy their trips to Hawaii and staying active. Please visit her at her website, , and her blog


  1. Kate, I can empathize. Doctors are caught on the horns of a dilemma daily--do their best for patients while avoiding doing anything that could trigger a lawsuit...and I do mean "anything."

    I practiced for 35 years, and managed to avoid any suits, but the possibility hung over my head like the Sword of Damocles every day.

    Good luck with your writing--and enjoy Hawaii. Mahalo for sharing.

  2. So sorry to hear about your experience, Kate. I remember some of this being in the news. Even though the media has gone on to other stories, I know it must feel like it is always there for you. I pray that God will give you strength and peace for each day. Hawaii is one of our favorite places to restore our soul. Blessings to you.

  3. Kate, this is a sad commentary on our medical system, judicial system, and on the media. Seems the media always look for someone to throw to the wolves, someone to blame. And defense attorneys often try to make victims into the reason why their client chose the wrong way. Where were those in our medical system who followed the same procedures you did while this was going on? Scrambling to cover themselves, no doubt. No wonder medical costs are so high, when a person can sue when procedures set out by the medical associations were followed correctly. Changes need to be made, but not because of law suits -- make the changes because it's the right thing to do. We can never legislate people into always doing the right thing. Our system has lost sight of the fact that this surgical tech is a criminal. You are not the criminal.

  4. Thanks so much everyone for your comments.

    One reason I wanted Kate to share her story is often time when a medical lawsuit is brought-- it's assumed that the healthcare provider was negligent. Or that bad outcomes equals negligence.

    This is just not true. People come to the hospital and it's just their time. It doesn't mean something was done inappriately by the medical staff.

    Regarding this case-- the surgical tech was sentenced to 30 years. Here's a link:

  5. Kate, my heart goes with you. I am the author of Why Whisper? I have made a study of addiction and the harm it is doing in this country in every walk of life. Addicts may be sick and suffering individuals, but they loose their emotional consciousness which can be worse than a million guns shooting into a crowd of strangers. They also loose their capacity to understand the inevitable consequence of their action. All very sad.