"I don't blame the families for hating me," David Kwiatkowski said after hearing about 20 statements from people he infected and their relatives. "I hate myself."
Kwiatkowski, 34, was a cardiac technologist in 18 hospitals in seven states before being hired at New Hampshire's Exeter Hospital in 2011. He had moved from job to job despite being fired at least four times over allegations of drug use and theft. Since his arrest last year, 46 people have been diagnosed with the same strain of hepatitis C he carries.
Kwiatkowski admitted stealing painkillers and replacing them with saline-filled syringes tainted with his blood. He pleaded guilty in August to 16 federal drug charges.
Before he was sentenced, Kwiatkowski said he was very sorry what he had done. Standing and turning to face his victims, he said his crimes were caused by an addiction to painkillers and alcohol.
"There's no excuse for what I've done," he said. "I know the pain and suffering I have caused."
Prosecutors asked for a 40-year sentence. Judge Joseph LaPlante said he cut the last year as a reminder that some people have the capacity for mercy and compassion.
"It's important for you to recognize and remember as you spend the next 39 years in prison to focus on the one year you didn't get and try to develop that capacity in yourself," LaPlante said.
The victims spoke angrily and tearfully of the pain that Kwiatkowski had inflicted by giving them hepatitis C, a blood-borne virus that can cause liver disease and chronic health problems.
Linda Ficken, 71, was one of two Kansas victims to attend the sentencing hearing. She underwent a cardiac catheterization at Hays Medical Center in 2010, and said she is haunted by the memory of Kwiatkowski standing at her bedside for more than an hour, applying pressure to the catheter's entry site in her leg to control bleeding.
"On one hand, you were saving my life, and on the other hand, your acts are a death sentence for me," Ficken, of Andover, Kan., told him Monday. "Do I thank you for what you did to help me? Do I despise you for what your actions did and will continue to do for the rest of my life? Or do I simply just feel sorry for you being the pathetic individual you are?"
Linwood Nelson, who was infected when he went in for a procedure at the Baltimore VA Medical Center in 2012, said Kwiatkowski "should receive the same punishment he gave us: the death penalty."
In pushing for a 40-year prison sentence, prosecutors said Kwiatkowski created a "national public health crisis," put a significant number of people at risk and caused substantial physical and emotional harm to a large number of victims.
Defense lawyers argued that a 30-year sentence would better balance the seriousness of the crimes against Kwiatkowski's mental and emotional problems and his addiction to drugs and alcohol, which they said clouded his judgment.
In all, 32 patients were infected in New Hampshire, seven in Maryland, six in Kansas and one in Pennsylvania. Kwiatkowski also worked in Michigan, New York, Arizona and Georgia.
Two of the 16 charges stem from the case of a Kansas patient who has since died. Authorities say hepatitis C played a contributing role.
Ficken told The Associated Press last week that while she has struggled with fatigue since her diagnosis, a bigger blow came last month when her brother was diagnosed with leukemia and was told he needs a stem cell transplant. While siblings often are the closest match, she can't donate because of her hepatitis C status.
She made a tearful promise to Kwiatkowski if her brother dies because she can't be a donor.
"Rest assured, I will haunt you until the day I die," she said.
Associated Press writer Rik Stevens contributed to this report.