Catherine Shannon Dunton, 54, stole 450 fentanyl vials from The Surgery Center at Jensen Beach in Florida for personal use
A disgraced Florida nurse of nearly 30 years has been convicted of stealing hundreds of vials of fentanyl and using the drug for herself.
Catherine Shannon Dunton, 54, took 450 doses of fentanyl, injected herself with them and then refilled the vials with saline solution over a three-month period between February and April 2022.
She was caught when colleagues at The Surgery Center at Jensen Beach noticed the missing drugs during an inventory check.
An investigation was launched and CCTV was used to identify Ms Dunton as a suspect, according to court documents reviewed by the Associated Press.
Her license was temporarily suspended after an employer-requested drug screening test showed up positive for fentanyl in March 2012.
During an evaluation by a doctor, Ms Dunton admitted she also drank at least one bottle of wine and four to five vodka drinks per day while under a substance abuse monitoring contract.
She is now facing up to 10 years in prison, followed by up to three years supervised release, and a fine of up to a quarter of a million dollars.
Ms Dunton pictured in 2018. She admitted to stealing close to 500 vials of fentanyl from hospital to use on herself and then refilling the vials with saline solution to give to patients
Fentanyl – an intense synthetic opioid responsible for killing more than 70,000 Americans a year – is normally used as an anesthetic during surgery and for pain relief after an operation.
But in recent years it has flooded the illicit drugs supply as dealers used it as a cheap and powerful cutting agent.
Ms Dunton worked from September 2021 to April 2022 caring for surgery patients at Jensen Beach, about 45 miles north of West Palm Beach.
She pleaded guilty on April 11 to tampering with a consumer product in Fort Pierce federal court, according to the Southern District of Florida US Attorney’s Office.
On or around May 24, 2022, Ms Dunton underwent an evaluation with Dr Lawrence Wilson, a physician specializing in addiction medicine and psychiatry, documents from Florida Department of Health showed.
Ms Dunton revealed to Dr Wilson that in 2008 she had swapped out ‘Demerol, morphine, fentanyl and Percocet for her personal use’, while she was working as a registered nurse at Lanwood Regional Medical Center in Fort Pierce, Florida.
She said she entered into a substance abuse monitoring contract with the Intervention Project for Nurses (IPN) in 2009, but admitted drinking at least one bottle of wine and four to five vodka drinks per day for the first three years of the contract.
In 2011, while still under the contract and working as a registered nurse at Lanwood Regional Medical Center, she swapped out 50-1000mg of fentanyl from the center at least three days a week and injected it into herself, according to Florida Department of Health documents.
Ms Dunton and her husband John in 2019, who live in Port Saint Lucie, Florida. The couple have two sons
Ms Dunton took vials of fentanyl citrate, a liquid form of fentanyl which doctors use to keep patients still during surgery and to ease their pain, and injected it into herself
In March 2012, an employer-requested drug screening test showed up positive for fentanyl, which prompted the suspension of her nursing license until she completed her monitoring contract with IPN in 2017.
Ms Dunton told Dr Wilson that in March 2021 she started having a bottle of wine and three to four alcoholic drinks a day. She said she sometimes drank alcohol in the early morning and would black out.
Her family is worried about her alcohol use, she said.
She was then hired at The Surgery Center at Jensen Beach in Florida around September 2021.
Between February and April 2022, she said she took vials of fentanyl citrate, a liquid form of fentanyl which doctors use to keep patients still during surgery and to ease their pain after surgery, and injected it into herself two to three days a week.
To avoid detection, Ms Dunton replaced the narcotic painkiller from nearly 450 vials with saline solution, and then returned the adulterated vials to the center for use during outpatient surgical procedures, investigators said.
Ms Dunton worked from September 2021 to April 2022 as a circulating nurse at outpatient surgical center The Surgery Center at Jensen Beach (pictured), about 45 miles north of West Palm Beach
She swapped out fentanyl and morphine by ‘removing the metal cap, removing the contents, and replacing the contents with saline’.
Ms Dunton admitted she knew there were times when the patients would only get the saline. This meant patients went without their necessary pain medication after surgery, the Florida Department of Health documents said.
Prosecutors had arranged for a Food and Drug Administration anesthesiologist to testify that surgery patients receiving diluted fentanyl was not safe.
Inadequate pain control can also lead to an elevated risk of heart attack or stroke in vulnerable patients, officials said.
Tampering with the vials also presented a risk of contamination, which could lead to infection during or after the surgical procedure.
Dr Wilson diagnosed Ms Dunton with severed opioid use disorder and severe alcohol use disorder, and asserted she is not able to practice nursing ‘with reasonable skill and safety to patients’.
On February 13, 2022, Ms Dunton posted on Facebook that she ‘still love[d] my career after 30 years’.
In her last Facebook post, on June 2, 2022, Ms Dunton asked for donations to Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association for her birthday.
She said: ‘I’ve chosen this nonprofit because their mission means a lot to me.’
The potent synthetic opioid fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine.
The cheap and highly addictive drug is used by doctors for patients in serious pain or with terminal illnesses.
Fentanyl was invented in the US in 1959 as a cheaper alternative to other painkillers used in hospitals and health centers worldwide.
Three chemicals, benzylfentanyl, 4-anilinopiperidine and norfentanyl and considered to be precursors to fentanyl by the DEA – meaning they are primary ingredients to the drug’s creation.
It binds to opioid receptors in a person’s nervous system, which are responsible for giving the body a pleasurable feeling when activated.