Federal prosecutors contend registered nurse Angela Huffman's painkiller thefts ultimately resulted in a young woman inadvertently receiving a strong dose of a stimulant moments before she was due for surgery.
Another nurse who witnessed the incident said the young woman looked "possessed" as she curled backwards on the operating table. A doctor interviewed by the Drug Enforcement Administration as part of the investigation said the medicine mix-up could have caused a heart attack in a less healthy person.
Writing the court, a DEA special agent said Huffman, 35, kept stealing painkillers even after she was forced to leave one job for doing so.
Huffman stole liquid painkillers from vials and replaced the missing drugs with other substances, most often saline solution, the DEA agent said in court papers. She's alleged to have swapped epinephrine, a stimulant, for surgical anesthetic at least once, and to have forged prescriptions and stolen bottles of pain medication.
Licensed by the Department of Health as a registered nurse in July 2012, Huffman went to work at a Bellevue plastic surgery clinic the following month.
In April, state health officials discovered Huffman had filed 14 prescriptions for painkillers in six months. The prescriptions appeared to have been issued by her employer, who, when contacted by investigators, said the prescriptions were forged.
According to charging papers, Huffman admitted to the doctor that she'd stolen a prescription pad and was forging prescriptions. When the doctor attempted to enroll Huffman in a confidential drug treatment program for healthcare workers, the nurse declined and was fired.
Huffman was hired days later at another plastic surgery office, this time in Kirkland. Prosecutors contend she began stealing pain medication almost immediately.
The clinic's other registered nurse returned from a vacation to find two vials of hydromorphone - a morphine-derived pain medication sometimes known as Dilaudid - were missing, as was a vial of fentanyl, another prescription pain medication. Staff at the clinic chalked up the missing drugs to a clerical error.
Three days later, on May 16, Huffman and the other registered nurse were preparing a 20-year-old woman for surgery when the other nurse attempted to inject her with fentanyl, the DEA agent said in court papers. Instead of nodding off as expected, the woman's heart rate spiked and she went rigid.
"Lying on her back, (the young woman's) body seized up, and she lifted off of the operating table on her arms and legs," the DEA agent told the court, recounting an interview with the other nurse. "(She) was writhing in an extremely unexpected and unnatural fashion, and appeared 'possessed.'"
Investigators contend the bottle labeled as "fentanyl" actually contained epinephrine. Had the patient been older or in poor health, the DEA agent said, the dose could have stopped her heart.
Days after the incident, clinic staff discovered more medication had disappeared. This time, 10 vials of hydromorphone were missing, and Huffman was suspected in the theft.
According to charging papers, Huffman was immediately fired and subsequently reported to state authorities.
Interviewed by state Health Department investigators, Huffman is alleged to have admitted to stealing pain medications and replacing them with saline solution - salt water. She is alleged to have done so at both clinics.
Writing the court, the DEA agent said Huffman went to work at a third medical provider in August. That Seattle provider fired her after learning why her two prior employers fired her; Huffman then went to work for a fourth medical services provider in Tukwila.
Huffman is alleged to have told a state investigator she was stealing pain medication to feed an addiction that began after she was legitimately prescribed the drugs in February.
A state records search conducted Wednesday indicates Huffman's nursing license remains active. A Department of Health review is underway.
Arrested Friday, Huffman was released Tuesday and is currently free. She is expected to return Nov. 22 to U.S. District Court in Seattle for a preliminary hearing.