It's a silent epidemic where the only cure is being caught: Nurses stealing prescription drugs, sometimes even from their patients, to feed their own addiction.

"It occurred to me one day while I was working in an emergency room that we throw away a lot of awfully good drugs, and I should take them," said Kristin Waite-Labott.

Kristin Waite-Labott is a confessed real-life "Nurse Jackie."

"I was putting my patients at risk," said Waite-Labott.

Catherine Cowart was a warm, thoughtful nurse who brought flowers to her patients' homes. But police say she also helped herself to their pain medication.

Milwaukee affiliate WITI launched an investigation into nurses stealing drugs. They uncovered court documents revealing allegations of one nurse actually taking pills from her cancer patients -- even after they died.

That nurse, Stefanie Jones, is accused of removing morphine from syringes and refilling the syringes with water.

State discipline records from the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services reveal 42 patients were affected, and Jones allegedly did all of her dirty work without wearing gloves. Those same records show five of her patients got bacterial infections, and one died.

Jones had her medical license revoked, and WITI reports Jones told investigators the drugs were an escape from troubles in her life.

That's one of the same reasons Kristin Waite-Labott says she stole drugs.

"Nobody knew that I was using until, you know, they caught me stealing," said Waite-Labott.

She was eventually caught, went to jail, and now has this terrifying warning.

"I think this is a huge problem and I don't think there is a lot being done about it," said Waite-Labott. "Everything is very hush-hush. Nobody wants to talk about it."

A number of Milwaukee hospitals refused comment, but the Wisconsin Hospital Association maintains there are a lot of good nurses out there.

"Patient safety has always got to be first and foremost," said Steven Rush, a Wisconsin Hospital Association spokesman.

Rush is also a nurse. He's quick to point out drug abuse among nurses is on par with abuse of prescription pain meds and opiates in the population at large.

"That's a widely held myth, that nurses are disproportionately more affected by this issue than the general population. And that's just simply not true," said Rush.

During the last two years in Wisconsin alone, 104 nurses have been disciplined for drug diversion or related crimes. Hospitals are trying to crack down, and some are even going high-tech, requiring a fingerprint before any staff member can access narcotics.

"Every action leaves what we call an electronic footprint," said Rush.

Despite the increased monitoring, the problem continues. In hospitals, in nursing homes, even in patients' own homes. Kristin claims it's a way to cope with a job that deals with life and death.

"I was always so nervous and so uptight that it just helped me to feel better," said Waite-Labott. "It just made me feel better."

Now 10 years sober, Waite-Labott has written a book called "An Unlikely Addict." Her message: Before you help your patients, you just might have to get help for yourself.

Comments