As part of a yearlong scheme to satisfy his addiction, a nursing home nurse in northwestern Minnesota routinely peeled powerful pain patches off the backs of residents with severe cognitive disabilities, then affixed the patches to his tongue before sticking them back on the clients, according to a state investigation.
Health Department investigators, in a report released this week, said the licensed practical nurse at Villa St. Vincent in Crookston stole painkillers from 10 residents until being caught in July, leading to police involvement and the employee's immediate firing.
The nurse "removed … fentanyl patches from [three] residents' back[s], placed the patches on [his] tongue for approximately one hour and replaced the patches on the residents," investigators said in the report.
The nurse admitted to carrying out this routine three to four times a week, as well as stealing at least 10 tablets of narcotics "every week for at least a year," the report continued.
The three patients on fentanyl were described in the report as having "severe cognitive defects and an inability to communicate their needs." The report added that the health effects of having the patches temporarily removed from the three residents "could not be determined."
Villa St. Vincent administrator Judy Hulst said Saturday, "We are not aware of any patient being harmed" by the nurse's actions. Hulst said the nurse had been with the nursing home since 2002.
The roster of drugs the nurse stole, investigators continued, included tramadol, Tylenol #3 and Percocet. During police questioning, he had 18 stolen pills on him, the report noted. A urine test came back positive for opiates and oxycodone.
Fentanyl is a potent narcotic analgesic used to supplement general anesthesia or to treat long-term or chronic pain requiring continuous relief. The opium-based medication is seldom used outside of hospitals because it is powerful and fast-acting. It's considered 80 times stronger than morphine and highly addictive.
When abused, fentanyl is known to be fatal. In January, Paul D. Mrosla, 25, of Carlton, Minn., overdosed on a fentanyl patch he bought illegally from an acquaintance. Also, since 2007, two bodybuilders — one in Minnesota and another in South Dakota — died of fentanyl overdoses by using patches they had acquired through third parties.
In the Crookston case, the public release of information from the Health Department did not disclose the nurse's identity.
Messages were left Friday with the Crookston police and the Polk County attorney's office seeking to find out whether the nurse was charged with any crimes.
The disclosed portion of the report blames the nurse for what it called "financial exploitation."
There is conflicting information, however, about whether the nursing home shoulders any of the blame.
In one instance, the report said the facility "had policies and procedures in place to govern the handling and control of narcotic medications." But the department also said that the consulting pharmacist lacked the proper safeguards to ensure the proper tracking of narcotics.
The pharmacist acknowledged that the home lacked "a system to track all narcotic medications," the Health Department report read.
Administrator Hulst elaborated, saying the nursing home did at the time of the thefts "have policies, procedures and training for staff in place to govern the handling and control of narcotic medications," then after the thefts were detected it "implemented new policies and procedures to enhance the handling and control of narcotic medications."
Villa St. Vincent is operated by the Duluth-based Benedictine Health System, a nonprofit Catholic senior care provider with facilities in 40 communities in Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota. It is sponsored by the Benedictine sisters of St. Scholastica Monastery in Duluth.