SEATTLE -- Cassandra Cox always had a fear of hospitals.
Still, she had been a patient of Northwest Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle for years and trusted them with her care when she underwent surgery on her gallbladder in early 2012.
But nothing prepared Cox, 39, of Lynnwood, for the letter she received nearly four years after her operation.
“I couldn’t believe that I was actually reading what I was reading,” she said.
Cox was one of around 5,000 patients across four states who received letters earlier this year, warning them of their potential exposure to HIV and hepatitis B and C.
All had been treated at one of several medical centers where a surgery technician named Rocky Allen worked.
Allen, 28, is now under federal indictment in Colorado, accused of tampering with and stealing pain medication that was supposed to be used on patients at a hospital in a suburb of Denver. Fears surfaced that Allen, who federal prosecutors say has a blood-borne pathogen, may have infected patients by injecting pain meds into himself and putting used syringes back into circulation.
It took months before the full extent of Allen’s alleged actions became clear, and before the feds would unravel the complex web of lies he spun to gain access to surgery rooms across the country – and the potent pain meds he so desperately sought.
Meanwhile, patients like Cox are left wondering whether hospitals could have done more to protect them.
“They had an obligation to make sure that we were safe,” Cox said. “This was my life. I can be pissed about somebody putting my life in danger.”
Cox has since tested negative for the viruses, but is one of at least 150 patients now involved in lawsuits or claims against hospitals where Allen worked – including Northwest Hospital and Medical Center.
“It’s analogous to a daycare hiring a known pedophile,” said James Avery, a Colorado-based attorney representing Cox and other patients. “This guy was basically a convicted drug addict. They hired him and put him in a position where he could injure thousands of people.”
Soon after Allen’s indictment, the feds tracked down a long history of similar allegations dating back to his time as a Hospital Corpsman in the Navy.
In 2011, while serving at a hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Allen was caught stealing vials of the pain medication Fentanyl, according to records. He later told a military court martial that he “wanted to take them to use them personally and try to kind of escape being here (in) Kandahar.”
Allen was discharged from the Navy and returned to Washington state, where he’s accused of lying to find employment at two medical facilities – Lakewood Surgery Center and Northwest.
According to documents filed in federal court in Colorado, Allen lied on his application to Northwest, claiming he had been laid off from Lakewood Surgery when he had actually been fired under suspicion of trying to steal pain medication. Allen also lied about his military service, according to federal prosecutors, and claimed he left the military after he fulfilled his contract.
By the time Northwest caught on to the lies, it was too late.
Allen was fired from Northwest after several employees suspected he was stealing medication. One hospital worker allegedly caught him “in the dark, standing next to the anesthesia case cart, shaking a sharps container,” according to court documents.
According to an investigation released this week by the Washington State Department of Health, Northwest Hospital failed to report Allen’s alleged conduct to the state as required by law and failed to fully investigate the circumstances surrounding his termination.
Instead, Allen went on to work at medical centers in California and Arizona – being fired from each job under similar circumstances.
While working at Scripps Green Hospital in California, Allen “was observed switching syringes and taking the syringe from the cart and placing it in his scrub pants,” according to court documents.
At John C. Lincoln Medical Center in Arizona, Allen was found “unresponsive by a co-worker” and later tested positive for Fentanyl.
In fact, Allen’s’ “theft of opiates, in particular Fentanyl, occurred at virtually each and every healthcare facility dating back to his employment in the Navy,” the feds concluded.
Yet, Allen was able to dupe hospital after hospital – even claiming in an online resume in 2013 that he had been awarded a Purple Heart for injuries sustained while deployed in Afghanistan. The military has no record of Allen receiving such an honor.
“It’s a situation that should never have occurred. It could only occur in the context really of gross negligence,” said Avery, who believes the hospitals should have known about Allen’s checkered past. “It is inconceivable that they would hire somebody who had been court martialed, essentially a convicted felon convicted of a drug offense, and put them in the role of a surgical technologist. These people are working in operating rooms. A patient is never more vulnerable than they are in an operating room.”
To date, no hospitals where Allen worked have confirmed any cases of HIV or hepatitis related to his alleged conduct, although some patients have come forward with claims to the contrary.
Northwest Hospital said it could not comment on the findings of the Washington State Department of Health investigation because of ongoing litigation.