UCLA Medical Student Says Dying Patient's iPad Cover Led to "Terrible Mistake"
Virginia Nguyen was sentenced to probation and 45 days of community service in the case of an iPad taken from a dying cancer patient
Virginia Nguyen appears in court on Friday, Oct. 3, 2014. She was accused of the theft of an iPad that belonged to a patient who died at UCLA Medical Center. The case was resolved when she pleaded no contest to a felony computer fraud count and was sentenced to community service.
Monday, Dec 22, 2014 • Updated at 9:05 PM PST
A medical student sentenced in connection with the case of an iPad that was taken from a dying patient at UCLA Medical Center said the device was removed by "mistake" because of a mixup involving its cover.
Virginia Nguyen shared her account for the first time in the wake of her no contest plea to a felony computer crime in an email to NBC4. Nguyen told NBC4 she took the iPad because it had a white, quilted cover "identical" to her iPad's cover.
"I am very remorseful for my terrible mistake about the tablet," wrote Nguyen, 32, in the email. "I would never intentionally steal from a dying cancer patient and I am very sorry that it happened."
Earlier this month, she was sentenced to probation and 45 days of community service for a computer fraud count of altering or deleting data without permission. After one year, under the judge's sentencing order, she may seek to have the conviction reduced, thereby clearing her record of the felony.
A felony conviction, if it stood, could hamper a medical student's aspiration to become a licensed physician, according to the rules of the Medical Board of California. The family of Natalie Packer, unconvinced of Nguyen's remorse, contends Nguyen should not be allowed to practice medicine.
Packer had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer when she was admitted to the UCLA Medical Center in the summer of 2013. She kept her iPad at bedside to record messages and information for her sister.
She was only 30 years old when she went into cardiac arrest, and could not be revived. It was sometime after the frantic code blue response was deemed hopeless that a relative realized the iPad was missing, according to Packer's Uncle Sam Heller.
Several days later, Packer's sister activated the "Find my iPhone" App, which located the iPad at the medical center. It also revealed that "Natalie's iPad" had been re-registered as "Virginia's iPad," Heller said.
Months later, when University Police contacted Nguyen on campus, the iPad was in her possession.
According to Nguyen, she was working late in the hospital when she realized her iPad was not in her back pocket where she usually kept it. She looked around in the intensive care unit, described as a "large open area without doors to patient areas," saw an iPad in a white quilted cover, and took it, discovering it was not hers only after she got home, she wrote.
"I thought I might have accidentally took it from another doctor or employee at the hospital but I had absolutely no idea it belonged to a patient until police confronted me about a missing tablet later," wrote Nguyen.
Nguyen, who said she was not a member of the patient's treatment team, stated there were issues during her time at UCLA Medical School that left her fearful of being dismissed. She acknowledged the medical school had previously moved to dismiss her, before relenting. She contends the dismissal attempt was related to her making an accusation of sexual harassment, which was not upheld. She contends these experiences "caused me to distrust authority figures at UCLA" and that "fear of retaliation" was the reason she did not return the iPad.
Heller said that even if he accepts that as true, it still does not explain why Nguyen re-registered the iPad in her name and kept it.
"I don't have a good answer to using the tablet after I found it," Nguyen told NBC4. "However, I did not know if the owner had saved their credit card information on auto-fill and I wanted to be 100-percent sure that it would be impossible for any charges/purchases to be made on anyone's account other than my own."
She also said she backed up the original owner's data to iCloud before entering her data.
The felony charge to which Nguyen pleaded no contest concerned the accessing of the iPad and altering data without permission. A theft count, PC 484(A), was dismissed as part of the plea agreement, along with a PC 485 count alleging the keeping of lost property when there are clues that identify the owner.
According to Nguyen, after being charged, she was placed on six month suspension by UCLA, and then after the case received media attention, was sent a dismissal letter. She said "it will be impossible" to be admitted to another medical school.
In September, UCLA confirmed that Nguyen no longer was employed at the Ronald Reagan Medical Center. Citing student confidentiality rights, the University declined to discuss her record or status at the medical school.
In her email, Nguyen wrote of being a foster child, and how her experience inspired her commitment to community service, including medical aid missions to Vietnam and involvement in mentoring programs for disadvantaged youth. She also takes pride in her cancer research work at the National Institutes of Health before being accepted to medical school.
It is evident Nguyen fears how this case will affect her life and career.
"I made a huge mistake and I deserve to be punished. However, in this case, the punishment does not fit the crime," she wrote. "I'm not a horrible person. I just did something horribly stupid."