Nurse was caught swapping pain medicine meant for surgery patients with saline, feds say

After a Florida surgical center fired one of its nurses accused of forging an anesthesia record, she removed vials of pain medication from a drug cabinet and left the facility, federal prosecutors said.

Before leaving the Jacksonville center on Oct. 13, 2022, she told three employees she “had been taking drugs from the facility” as a result of addiction and announced “the drug count was going to be off,” according to court documents.

As she walked out the building, “the sound of vials clinking in her pocket could be heard,” her plea agreement says.

The woman was caught with four vials of injectable hydromorphone meant for surgery patients inside her car after a supervisor called her back into the building, according to the plea agreement.

However, the vials didn’t actually contain hydromorphone — a strong opioid prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain — because she swapped out the medication for saline, the plea agreement says.

The woman, 30, of Jacksonville Beach, pleaded guilty on Oct. 3 to tampering with the surgical center’s medication, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida said in a news release.

Altering medications could have “placed patients in danger of bodily injury and potentially death,” prosecutors said.

McClatchy News contacted a defense attorney representing her for comment on Oct. 3 and didn’t receive an immediate response.

The woman said she previously “removed the hydromorphone, replaced it with saline, glued the caps back on, and then put vials back in the inventory so that (the) surgical center’s drug count would be correct,” prosecutors said.

The surgical center learned this after she was caught forging the signatures of a physician and anesthesiologist on a patient’s anesthesia form — resulting in her firing, according to her plea agreement.

She said she lost the patient’s original anesthesia form and “created a new one so that she would not get in trouble,” the plea agreement says.

Ultimately, the surgical center discovered several patient records were altered to hide that the woman was stealing and using the facility’s drugs, according to prosecutors.

Some patient records reflected that they received an unusual amount of hydromorphone, specifically 200 ml, when it was more likely that they would’ve received about 100 ml, according to prosecutors.

“On those occasions, the entries appeared to have been altered with a ‘2’ being written over the ‘1,’” prosecutors said.

Other records showed that patients were given hydromorphone after their surgeries, “which also would be unusual,” according to prosecutors.

The charge of tampering with a consumer product carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, the release said.

The woman’s sentencing hearing hasn’t been scheduled yet, according to the release.

Hydromorphone use has potential risks, including addiction, abuse and overdose, according to an Aug. 17 report published in the National Library of Medicine.

What to know about the US opioid crisis

Overdoses are a leading cause of injury-related death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2021, there were nearly 51,000 overdose deaths in the country, according to CDC data. In the past 21 years, drug overdoses have killed more than 932,000 people, the CDC reported.

“The majority of overdose deaths involve opioids. Deaths involving synthetic opioids (largely illicitly made fentanyl) and stimulants (such as cocaine and methamphetamine) have increased in recent years,” the CDC said. “For every drug overdose that results in death, there are many more nonfatal overdoses, each one with its own emotional and economic toll.”

Millions of people in the U.S. have an opioid addiction, according to the CDC. Addiction is a “chronic and relapsing disease that can affect anyone.”

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