By Daniel Lovering
CONCORD, New Hampshire (Reuters) - A former New Hampshire hospital technician who caused dozens of people to become infected with hepatitis C when he injected himself with syringes of pain killers that were then used on patients was sentenced to 39 years in prison on Monday.
David Kwiatkowski, 34, admitted in August to stealing the drugs and leaving used syringes for hospital use for years despite knowing he was infected with hepatitis C, a potentially fatal virus that attacks the liver.
He was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Joseph Laplante in Concord, New Hampshire, after pleading guilty to obtaining controlled substances by fraud and tampering with a consumer product. The judge said his actions verged on "cruelty."
"The whole reason I got into healthcare was to help people, and my addiction took that away," Kwiatkowski said before being sentenced. "I cannot begin to tell you how much it hurts me... I don't blame the families for hating me. I hate myself."
Kwiatkowski worked as a traveling medical technician in at least eight states for nearly a decade before he was arrested last year following a rash of unexplained hepatitis C cases at Exeter Hospital in New Hampshire.
He told authorities he had injected himself with syringes of the painkiller fentanyl stolen from hospital supply cabinets, causing the syringes to become tainted by his infected blood, and then filled the syringes with saline solution to make it appear they had not yet been used.
Hospital staff then injected patients with the needles, unaware they had been contaminated.
So far some 45 people have been confirmed infected, including 32 in New Hampshire, six in Kansas and seven in Maryland, prosecutors said. Kwiatkowski admitted he used syringes to obtain fentanyl at least 20 times in Kansas, 30 times in Georgia and about 50 times at Exeter Hospital.
He said he had been aware he had hepatitis C and that he was "going to kill a lot of people out of this," according to court documents. Prosecutors said he learned of his diagnosis in June 2010 while working at Hays Medical Center in Kansas.
The discovery of Kwiatkowski's activities prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend that more than 12,000 people be tested for the virus.
Before the sentencing on Monday, more than a dozen victims described the devastating effects of the disease on their lives and families. Some 20 victims attended the hearing, including eight who had traveled from Kansas.
"I cannot forget nor can I offer forgiveness for what he has done," said Ronnie Murphy of Hays, Kansas, whose mother Eleanor died partly as a result of a hepatitis C infection caused by Kwiatkowski. "His crime is particularly heinous given his profession as a health care worker."
Murphy, who wept as he spoke, said the last years of his mother's life were "extremely painful". He said he hoped Kwiatowski would get a life sentence.
Another victim, Linwood Nelson, 66, said he had served as a soldier in Vietnam in the 1960s and felt blessed to have returned unharmed, "not knowing it was going to be friendly fire that would injure me." He said he was no longer able to work as a home improvement contractor for fear of cutting himself and infecting a co-worker or family member, and that he had spent many sleepless nights worrying about his fate.
"This gentleman fooled me," Nelson said, referring to Kwiatkowski. "I feel he has no remorse and that he should receive the same punishment he has given us - the death penalty."
Nelson's son, also named Linwood, said his father had been forced to distance himself from grandchildren, and that Kwiatkowski had "singlehandedly devastated an entire family."
In sentencing Kwiatkowski, Judge Laplante said the defendant's conduct went beyond recklessness, verging on "cruelty" or "hostility." He said he sentenced Kwiatkowski to 39 years rather than the 40 sought by prosecutors "to give you something to appreciate about human beings," that people have a capacity for compassion.
"I hope you focus on the one year you didn't get and try to develop that capacity in yourself," he said.
(Editing by Scott Malone, Richard Valdmanis and Cynthia Osterman)