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Layton • When she went into the emergency room in November 2014, the 27-year-old Ogden woman didn't think it was going to be a life-changing visit.
She remembers the morphine made her chest hurt and that her nurse was rude but it was, overall, a routine few hours at McKay-Dee Hospital for treatment for ovarian cysts.
She didn't know then that her nurse, Elet Neilson, had likely exposed her to hepatitis C. And she didn't know that a year later, she would test positive for the disease.
The woman a college student who asked to remain anonymous because of the negative public perception of hepatitis C said she didn't think much about that visit until a year later, in November 2015, when she received a phone call from someone at the hospital who said she may have been exposed to the disease. She was four months pregnant at that time with her third child.
"It's scary," she said. "I was scared, but then at the same time, I wasn't really too worried. [I thought] there is no way I could have it. And then I got tested."
The woman was told she would know in a week whether or not she had tested positive. So she waited. A month went by and nothing.
It wasn't until a friend told her that she, too, had been exposed and had received a negative result within a week that the woman called the hospital and asked for her results. The receptionist told her that she needed to come to the hospital, the woman said, but she insisted on being told the results over the phone.
She was positive for hepatitis C.
"I was terrified," the woman said. "I mean, I'm pregnant. And I'm scared. What if my baby has it?"
A lawsuit • The woman is one of 160 clients so far working with Layton-based law firm Feller and Wendt, which in November informed Neilson, McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, and Davis Hospital and Medical Center in Layton where Nielson also worked that they plan to sue. Of those clients, seven have tested positive for hepatitis C, according to attorney Thaddeus Wendt. All seven were patients at McKay-Dee Hospital, he said.
The young mother said in a recent interview held at the law firm's office that after meeting with hospital officials, she was frustrated because they did not have many answers to the questions that flooded her mind.
It also seemed as if the hospital workers she met with were deflecting blame, she said.
"I asked them, 'How was she doing it? Was she using the needles and injecting us with the same needles?' " she recalled. "They said, 'That's something we'll never know.' "
And what about her baby? Could her fiancé contract it? What about her two young daughters, whom she would catch using her toothbrush from time to time?
The woman said hospital officials told her that there was only a small chance that her family could get the disease from her and that her baby would likely get infected only if the newborn was cut during labor and was exposed to her blood. She also was told that the hospital wasn't willing to pay for testing her partner or her children. Because she is pregnant, the woman will have to wait until her son is born before she can start treatment herself, she said.
"I'm just still worried," she said. "I'm a little upset that [Neilson]'s not in prison or that the hospital was OK with even hiring her without doing any kind of background check or anything. How does something like that happen in an emergency department? I know McKay-Dee has cameras everywhere. How was she not caught before?"
Wendt's firm has partnered with two out-of-state law firms Dallas W. Hartman P.C. in Pennsylvania and West Virginia's Bell Law Firm in its effort to bring the case to court. In a notice of intent to commence a proposed class-action suit, the attorneys claim the hospitals were negligent and reckless, and failed to guard against theft and diversion of controlled substances in violation of multiple state and federal laws.
The attorneys also claim that the hospitals failed to report Neilson's actions, and failed to terminate Neilson's employment in a timely manner. They also allege that the hospitals failed to promptly notify patients that they had "been subjected to medical instruments that had potentially been contaminated by Neilson and were therefore at risk of contracting and/or spreading viral and/or bacterial infections."
Wendt said they will likely file the lawsuit in a few months, after they finish required hearings with the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing (DOPL).
McKay-Dee Hospital spokesman Chris Dallin said he could not comment on the potential lawsuit, and officials with Davis Hospital and Medical Center did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Neilson's lawyer, Shawn McGeery, told The Tribune last week that many of the allegations against Neilson are not accurate and do not "present the complete factual story." He declined to provide more details, saying he needed to respect the privacy of his client and others involved, and could not discuss their medical information publicly.
"We will aggressively defend these claims," McGeery said, "and truly look forward to sharing the complete story and exonerating Elet when the opportunity is there."
Douglas Olcott, an attorney with the Pennsylvania-based firm, said this is the second case his firm has litigated in which a healthcare worker was accused of passing hepatitis C to patients. The firm filed class-action lawsuits in the case of David Kwiatkowski, a traveling radiology technician who infected 30 people with the virus in a multi-state outbreak. He was sentenced in New Hampshire to 39 years in federal prison in 2013, after pleading guilty to seven counts of tampering with a consumer product and seven counts of obtaining controlled substances.
Olcott said that while there is still a lot they don't know about the Utah case, he believes the two incidents are likely similar. In Kwiatkowski's case, he was infecting patients by using stolen syringes to inject himself before filling them with saline and replacing them for use in a medical procedure, the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Hampshire said in 2013.
Olcott said two lawsuits were filed in connection with Kwiatkowski by his firm: One for a handful of clients who tested positive (that suit is still pending) and another for those who were exposed but did not become infected by the disease. He said those who aren't infected were part of litigation because, while they didn't get the disease, they were harmed emotionally by being exposed in what is supposed to be a safe environment, on top of the process of being tested for hepatitis C and waiting for the results.
"If you test negative, there's still feelings of betrayal, of fear," he said. "[Feelings of] 'Oh my God, what if it's me?' There's angst that certainly carries an element of emotional distress."
Nurse Neilson • Health officials believe 49-year-old Neilson may have exposed as many as 7,200 patients to the hepatitis C genotype B strain. Of those patients, roughly 4,800 were treated at McKay-Dee Hospital where Neilson worked from June 2013 to November 2014 and 2,369 were at Davis Hospital and Medical Center. Neilson worked at the Layton hospital between 2012 and 2014.
Neilson, who has also gone by the name Elet Hamblin, was a nurse for about 13 years before surrendering her license in November, according to DOPL.
Neilson has admitted in DOPL records to taking drugs from her employers twice in the past several years. In October 2013, she admitted to "unprofessional conduct" when she took Benadryl from Davis Hospital and Medical Center from August 2012 to April 2013, for which she was fined and publicly reprimanded by the department.
At the time of the reprimand, she had been working at McKay-Dee Hospital for about four months.
She was fired from the Ogden hospital a year later, in November 2014. She admitted that same month to taking Dilaudid and morphine from McKay-Dee for a seven-month period starting in June 2014, according to DOPL records.
Also in November 2014, a security employee with McKay-Dee Hospital reported Neilson to the Ogden police for stealing drugs, according to a police report. Neilson's nursing supervisor had noticed more drugs were being dispensed in the emergency room than was needed by the ER patients, the report said.
In a meeting with hospital staff, Neilson initially denied the allegations, according to the police report.
"Elet stated she was just helping out other nurses with their patients," an officer wrote. "[Name redacted] also asked Elet why she had checked out more medication [than] had been prescribed for her patients. Elet answered that she didn't know why."
But after this meeting, Neilson allegedly called the hospital's personnel director and admitted to diverting the medications, police records state.
She was charged in January 2015 with third-degree felony drug possession in Ogden's 2nd District Court. She pleaded guilty to a reduced class A misdemeanor in May 2015 and was sentenced to two years probation, according to court records.
Neilson surrendered her license in November a month after health officials began offering free testing to the thousands of patients who came into contact with Neilson at the two hospitals and were given certain medications.
But Neilson did not give up her license due to the hepatitis C allegations. Rather, it was because a urine analysis tested positive for alcohol earlier in the year and she had several "diluted samples" in the months afterwards, according to DOPL records.
According to minutes from a DOPL Board of Nursing meeting held in June 2015, Neilson had told the board that she drank alcohol to celebrate her wedding, which is why she had a positive drug screen for alcohol. She explained that the diluted urine samples were due to her drinking "a lot of water." At that June meeting, she reported that she had been sober since March 2015, and hadn't been looking for a new nursing job because she wanted to focus on being a mother.
Testing • As of mid-February, about 42 percent of the patients who received letters alerting them to the possible hepatitis C exposure had been tested, according to Utah Department of Health public information officer Jenny Johnson.
UDOH officials confirmed in January that some of the patients had tested positive for hepatitis, but Johnson said last week they were not ready to release the exact number of those infected. She said the testing process can take up to eight weeks to positively identify if a patient has hepatitis C, and if the patient has the genotype 2b strain of the virus. Johnson said UDOH expects to release those numbers at a news conference at the end of March.
The "official" window for free testing ended Jan. 31 for McKay-Dee Hospital, but Dallin said they will continue to offer the testing to those who have been sent letters telling them they may have been exposed.
"We will offer the free tests for the foreseeable future," he said.
Dallin also said McKay-Dee has offered to pay for treatment of patients "identified as associated with the case," but he added that the specific details of that treatment varies on a case-by-case basis.
Officials with Davis Hospital and Medical Center said in their letter to patients that they will offer testing through the end of February.
Both Johnson and Dallin declined to provide any details about how exactly Neilson may have passed the disease to patients.
Ogden police concluded in their reports that it did not appear that Neilson intentionally tried to pass on the disease to other patients. Because much of the police report was redacted, because it contained Neilson's medical information, it is not clear why police believed it was unlikely or impossible to prove that Neilson knowingly and intentionally infected patients.
Prosecutors later declined to file charges against Neilson in connection to the hepatitis C outbreak, according to police records.
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