SALT LAKE CITY — Five years ago, he went to the McKay Dee Hospital emergency room for a dislocated shoulder. Monday he stood in court to confront the nurse who infected him that day with hepatitis C and is now headed to prison.
Identified only as “Patient Zero,” the man described how the illness stigmatized and disrupted his life and that of his family. He said he’s subjected to embarrassing questions about drug use and sex whenever he seeks health care. He can no longer donate blood as he regularly did in the past, including for a granddaughter who now has cancer.
“The people she infected are real people. We have real lives,” he said.
Patient Zero was among at least seven people former nurse Elet Neilson infected with hepatitis C during a two-month period in 2013 and 2014.
U.S. District Judge Dee Benson sentenced Neilson, 53, to five years in federal prison after she pleaded guilty last September to two counts each of tampering with a consumer product and fraudulently obtaining a controlled substance. Prosecutors dropped six other charges as part of a plea agreement.
“This is not a complicated case. It’s a sad case,” Benson said, adding it’s a case of unintended consequences because Neilson didn’t knowingly infect people with the disease.
A teary Neilson apologized in court for “my selfish, horrible” decisions.
Neilson said she turned to drugs after going through a difficult divorce, dealing with back problems and being a single mother to two children, including an autistic son who burned the house down. She said she had no idea the tentacles of her “reckless and careless” actions would impact other people.
“I’m repulsed by my own behavior,” she said.
Neilson said Patient Zero’s story strikes close to home because she attends the same Latter-day Saint ward as his granddaughter. Church, she said, is her only lifeline because “if anyone needs forgiveness, it’s me.”
Court documents show Neilson admitted to injecting herself with painkillers meant for patients before giving the drug to them while she worked as an emergency room nurse at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden. The hospital fired Neilson after confronting her with evidence she had taken medications.
Consequently, at least seven people contracted the hepatitis C Neilson carried but didn’t know she had until nine months after losing her job.
Neilson would put half of a vial of pain medication in a syringe for a patient and half in a syringe for herself, which she took home to use, said her lawyer Adam Bridge. She then brought the syringe back to work, loaded it with more drugs and used it on other patients, who became infected with hepatitis C.
“She acknowledged what she did was reckless,” Bridge said.
Prosecutor Sam Pead said Neilson’s explanation is plausible but not believable. He said it’s hard to imagine someone carrying around multiple needles. Neilson always injected herself first, he noted, recognizing she would not get sick that way.
“This is more than a mistake,” he said.
Neilson didn’t intend to hurt anyone, Bridge argued.
“For the last few months of her career, she abused opioid pain medication, which she stole from work because it was readily available. She wasn’t trying to harm patients, spread disease or cause public alarm,” according to Bridge. “Nationwide panic and harm were not on her radar and she was sickened to learn the full consequences of her actions.”
Pead argued that Neilson caused patients pain.
“When this case was investigated, a number of the victims all reported that they received no analgesic effect from the medication that the defendant administered to them,” according to prosecutor Sam Pead.
Pead contends it’s fair to infer that Neilson did not administer any beneficial quantity of medication to those patients, and thereby caused them bodily injury by allowing them to remain in serious pain.
Neilson also caused serious psychological injury to many of the victims, as well as substantial financial loss because the treatment for hepatitis was about $100,000 per patient, he said.
“The treatments were three months of horror for the victims,” Pead said.
U.S. Attorney John Huber said although the judge found Neilson didn’t intend to infect people with hepatitis C, but “boy, that is just a very unique, drastic and dark picture” of addiction.
“This case illustrated that addiction does not come without victims. It’s not a victimless issue,” he said. “Here you have a very unique circumstance that in the wake of this addiction, these innocent and unwitting victims’ lives were turned upside down.”