SALT LAKE CITY — Patient Zero learned of his Hepatitis C diagnosis in a letter from the Red Cross.
The man, only identified in court by the moniker, was stunned; he donated blood regularly and thought there had been some sort of mistake.
A friend in the medical field told him, “There’s no way you have this.” Patient Zero contracted the virus after falling from a ladder and separating his shoulder, prompting a trip to an emergency room. Another diagnosis confirmed what he feared.
“It scared me,” he said. “The side effects were terrifying to say the least.”
After the diagnosis, he would spend months working to rid the virus from his body, but the stigma of the disease has followed him in the years afterward. He told the court that he regularly gave blood, in part because of his granddaughter’s need for frequent blood transfusions.
Patient Zero would learn that he was the first person diagnosed with Hepatitis C in connection with a now-former nurse, 53-year-old Elet Neilson.
On Monday, a federal judge sentenced Neilson to a federal prison term of five years. She was also ordered to two years of supervised release once out of prison.
Neilson admitted in September to diverting pain medication and spreading Hepatitis C to at least seven people. She pleaded guilty to two counts of tampering with a consumer product and two counts of fraudulently obtaining a controlled substance, all felonies. In exchange for her plea, additional felony charges were dropped.
Neilson was charged with spreading the disease in both McKay-Dee and Davis hospitals in 2015, causing the facilities to notify 7,200 former patients of possible exposure to the disease.
More than 3,700 people came forward for blood tests, and her charges indicated she spread the virus to at least seven people.
On Monday, Neilson’s attorney, Adam Bridge, described how this had taken place. Sometimes Neilson would sometimes give only part of pain medication to patients, giving them a diluted dosage. She would then take the syringe home and use it on herself. She would also use wasted portions of medications on herself instead of disposing them properly. She worked in an emergency room, Bridge said, it was a chaotic environment.
“She was using syringes in a way that was reckless,” Bridge said.
During the hearing, prosecutor Sam Pead described how those she infected faced a long, painful road to recovery. Many had to undergo treatment for months and will have a significant, long-term impact from the illness. One victim, who did not speak in court, discovered her diagnosis when she was four months pregnant, Pead said.
Others have had to face the stigma of carrying such a disease. Pead described an unmarried man who was infected, and how the man had given up hope of having a long-term relationship.
Another man spoke on behalf of his father, who passed away before the Monday hearing. The man described how the diagnosis left his father “angry, depressed and always at home” during his final days.
Patient Zero described how his diagnosis has stuck with him through the years, even after going through treatment. He’s not a vindictive person, he said, but he wanted to let Neilson know that her reckless actions could not be tolerated.
“The people she affected are real people with real lives,” he said.
As Neilson addressed the court, she paused frequently to collect herself. She tearfully recalled how she had gone through a divorce and the loss of her home in a fire before she started using the medications. She said her and her two kids were living in a hotel room, and how she was working around the clock with two bulging discs in her back trying to make ends meet.
“It all became overwhelming, and I reached a breaking point,” Neilson said.
She profusely apologized to her family, victims and the medical profession as a whole.
“I cannot pretend to understand that my careless and reckless actions,” Neilson said. “What I do know is that I’m devastated, and I live every day grieving... I’m repulsed by my own behavior.”
After reading the victim impact statements, she hasn’t stopped crying, she said. Neilson said that she has been ravaged by guilt since she learned of her diagnosis and how it had impacted others.
She added that she attends church regularly, and said that Patient Zero’s granddaughter is in her ward.
“When I heard Patient Zero speak, his story strikes particularly close to me, because the only lifeline I have is to go to church every week,” Neilson said. Despite the piercing glares, she continues to attend services, because “if anyone needs forgiveness, it’s me,” she said.
Judge Dee Benson said the five-year sentence was appropriate when weighing all that surrounded the case.
“This case a remarkably sad case, everything about this is sad,” Benson said.
Benson ruled that Neilson could serve her sentence at a federal work camp in Texas, and gave her six weeks until she had to report to begin her sentence.
Outside the courthouse, U.S. Attorney John Huber told reporters he and his office were pleased with the outcome of the case. He said that
“Addiction is just such a common story in our community these days, and this case illustrates that addiction does not come without victims,” Huber said. “Here you have a very unique circumstance that in the wake of addiction, these innocent and unwitting victims where their lives were turned upside down.”
Neilson quietly left the courthouse surrounded by friends and family, her head pointed toward the ground. She will have to report to the federal facility in March to begin her sentence.