Addicted Doctors and Nurses
Huge numbers of medical professionals facing issues with drugs and alcohol
I once interviewed a nurse anesthesiologist in recovery who told me she had often been high in the operating room. She asked me not to mention this in print; she didn’t want former patients to know that she had put their lives at risk. (This was not an MBRC patient, by the way.)
But several doctors have come forward and been quite open about being addicted while treating—and even operating on—patients. In case you’re not aware of the three specialties who have the highest rate of drug addiction, it’s anesthesiologists, emergency room specialists, and psychiatrists.
In April, The Daily Beast had an article about a resident who overdosed on stolen pain medication –fentanyl — which he injected in the bathroom at the University of Michigan hospital, where he worked. That same day, a nurse overdosed and died in another bathroom of the same hospital.
The journalist who wrote the article said he knew of two anesthesiologists who OD’d on drugs and he said that the number of addicted doctors is similar to that of the general population. He also quoted an anesthesiologist who said he has no statistics, but he believes the problem is worsening among anesthesiologists, and that alcoholism “may pose the larger risk to …patients.” He doesn’t say whether he means all doctors or not, but he also recalls the addicted traveling medical technician who infected patients with Hepatitis C by putting fentanyl back into circulation the needles he used to inject himself with.
Dr. Stephen Loyd, an internist working in an ER in Johnson City, TN, is in the news again, hoping to help others by speaking out about his addiction on Huffpost Live. Loyd says, in the video, that he realized he had a problem one day in the ICU when he learned that he was taking more pain pills than a patient was! (He was taking 75 or 80 Oxycodone or Vicodin a day—100 a day at his worst, until his father intervened.)
The internist says he’s amazed that he didn’t overdose. The signs were there, and those around him had to know, he says. Dr. Andrew Kolodny, of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), also in the video, talks about how doctors start making bad choices. Loyd attributes it partly to the stress of his residency, saying that it contributed to his desire to get high. His addiction seemed normal, he said; it didn’t seem as if he put anyone at risk. But then he admitted that the people around him actually kept him from hurting anyone. (By the way, medical professionals have their own recovery groups, which I wrote about in 2011 for MBRC.)
Loyd is also featured on an NBC Rossen Reports video segment: “Is Your Doctor Stoned?” Rossen says that 1 in 10 doctors are abusing drugs or alcohol. One of Dr. Christopher Duntsch’s patients maintains that the doctor performed surgery while high and left him paralyzed. Duntsch, however, pleaded the fifth about substance abuse on the stand when he was brought to trial.
For those wanting to see a TV program that features an addicted medical professional, I recommend Nurse Jackie, starring Edie Falco as a nurse addicted to prescription pills. My local library has the series on tape, and I’m sure it’s available somewhere on TV (Netflix? On Demand?). Although he never saw the program, The Daily Beast writer I mentioned earlier says it “seems to be a total Hollywood-ification of a grave problem—addicted health care staff. By report, Nurse Jackie is a fun and loveable nurse who just likes the drugs a bit too much.” I really like the program, for the acting and the plot, and I disagree with him. I think the series DOES have a strong message about substance abuse. Unless I’m projecting my thoughts onto the character, I think that anyone who knows about addiction can see how she’s struggling and what addiction has done to her life. It’s a mess, as most drug addicts’ are quick to admit theirs was, once they’re in recovery.