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Q&A: A Surgeon’s Secret Drug Addiction
Few medical occupations demand the extensive education, personal discipline and tactical precision that is required of surgeons.
This is especially true for heart, or cardiac, surgeons. These specialized physicians begin their careers in general surgery, eventually transitioning to specialty training. When it’s all said and done, heart surgeons endure approximately 17 years of intense hands-on training and education before launching a solo career.
Most days, heart surgeons find themselves working in and around tiny capillaries and delicate blood vessels, using razor sharp surgical instruments in close proximity to vital structures within the chest. The delicate work they perform is usually accompanied by an enormous amount of stress, compounded by long hours spent at the hospital.
Life in an operating room can also be hectic and physically taxing on the body. Heart surgeons typically spend multiple hours on their feet, with an average surgery lasting 6 hours. In addition to scheduled work, surgeons also take emergency calls, where the pressure becomes even more intense. Often times, these medical professionals literally make the difference between life and death. That’s a heavy burden to bear and many heart surgeons have difficulty processing those feelings in a healthy manner.
For heart surgeon John Walker, the massive amount of stress and sleep deprivation eventually became too much to handle. After 30-years practicing in cardiac surgery, John found himself addicted to prescription pain medication, losing control of his life and constantly scared that someone would discover his secret. Like many addicts, John had to lose it all before he could ultimately break free of an addiction that was killing him.
Q: John, when did you first realize that you were an addict?
Lortab is a prescription painkiller made from a combination of acetaminophen and hydrocodone. It is prescribed for patients with severe pain. Hydrocodone is a strong opioid pain medication, and acetaminophen works to increase the effects of hydrocodone.
A: Oh, I can remember that vividly. I had undergone a back surgery many years ago that, instead of making my pain better, actually made it worse. My doctor prescribed opiates so that I could at least tolerate the pain and still manage my life. I took Lortab pills around the clock for a period of two years. Finally, my doctor told me she wanted to wean me off those pills and, after some discussion, I was fine with that decision. I left her office feeling confident about our plan of care.
The next day, all that confidence melted away. I was so sick. It was a Saturday afternoon. It was beautiful outside. I remember lying on my bathroom floor praying for some kind of relief, but the withdrawal symptoms just seemed to get worse. I knew I was in trouble, I knew I was an addict and I knew I was terrified. That’s a terrible mixture of emotions.
Q: So, opiates were your drug of choice?
A: Yes. Absolutely. Some people say that prescription pain medications make them sluggish and unmotivated? Well, I was the exact opposite. They made me feel like a million dollars; like I could conquer the world. When I took Lortab, I had this burst of energy that I’d never felt before. I mistakenly believed these little pills made my life more productive.
In order to obtain opiate medications, I would divert medications. I would write prescriptions under the name of someone else, have that person pick the prescription up and then bring the pills to me.-John WalkerIn order to obtain opiate medications, I would divert medications. I would write prescriptions under the name of someone else, have that person pick the prescription up and then bring the pills to me. Just saying that out loud humiliates me to this day. It just goes to show you how the disease of addiction can drive you to do crazy things. Addiction will make you smile as you flush your whole life down the toilet.
Q: When did you hit rock bottom?
A: My circumstances were a little different than most, I’d say. Like I said before, I diverted medications through other people. I had no concept of the fact I was not only ruining my life, I was also ruining theirs. A friend spoke to me about what I was doing. After some serious thought and reflection, I decided it was time to come clean. I contacted the Tennessee Medical Foundation, a peer-assisted counseling and rehabilitation program for medical doctors. I told them I needed help and I was in over my head.
I was immediately terminated from my job at the hospital, my license was suspended and my future was most certainly up in the air. Luckily, since I had reached out to the Tennessee Medical Foundation for help, I was granted an opportunity to… get my life in order.-John WalkerOnce I came forward, the wheels were in motion. The people who had agreed to help me obtain those diverted medications were all contacted by the authorities and wisely decided to cooperate. Thankfully, due to that cooperation, none of them were charged with a crime. I, on the other hand, was facing a number of charges and possible prison time.
I was immediately terminated from my job at the hospital, my license was suspended and my future was most certainly up in the air. Luckily, since I had reached out to the Tennessee Medical Foundation for help, I was granted an opportunity to clean up and get my life in order.
Q: What was your detox and recovery process like?
A: I was so terrified when I entered treatment. I just wanted to get through the rough part, which were the withdrawal symptoms. I kept telling myself if I could just get rid of the sickness, I could fully participate in the process. It took me about a week to start feeling physically better, but that’s when my emotional state took a turn.
I had enormous guilt that I was living with. I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t stop my mind from racing. I just felt like I could never show my face in public again. I can tell you this much; had I not had the wonderful rehab staff at my side, I never would have made it through. I literally had to learn to process my feelings again. It was like being a child and learning to speak all over again. I’m a methodical person, as most surgeons are, so I had a really hard time with the emotional junk that had taken up residence in my brain. I had to forgive myself and give myself permission to be whole again, as all addicts must.
Q: Will you be able to practice medicine in the future?
A: I really hope so, but I have some very fair and strict requirements to meet, should I ever practice medicine again. For example, I must follow all the treatment guidelines that are in place for my TMF contract. After that contract expires, I would have to practice under the guidance of another surgical professional for a while. I also have to pay all the fines associated with my case before my license would be reinstated. Even after all that, my license would be on a probationary status for no less than 5 years. Considering the circumstances, I think that’s more than fair.
Q: Do you think that addiction is a common problem among medical professionals?
A: You know, I would have answered no if you’d have asked me that question several years ago.
Q: But now?
A: Now, after being in treatment with a large number of medical professionals, I would have to say yes. You know, it has been such an eye-opening experience for me. I used to associate addiction with people who were “bad,” but that is so wrong. Addiction has no prerequisites and does not discriminate. You can be rich or poor, rural or high-society, the disease does not care. It grips people just the same and does not care to kill you.
Addiction has no prerequisites and does not discriminate. You can be rich or poor, rural or high-society, the disease does not care. It grips people… and does not care to kill you.-John WalkerMedical professionals, in my opinion, are probably at a higher risk for developing an addiction in some ways. We see and deal with a lot of disturbing things – life and death issues that really change you as a person. With a group of analytic and meticulous medical professionals, it stands to reason we don’t understand how to process emotional situations and feelings. Instead of talking about it or seeking therapy, we bottle it up and pretend it doesn’t exist. Well, let me tell you, it does exist and if we don’t learn how to properly convey our feelings and deal with our stresses, addiction has an open opportunity to sink her claws in.
Q: Your thoughts on modern addiction treatment methods?
A: I was literally floored to learn about all the holistic therapies they are using to treat addiction these days. Before I entered treatment, I was scared to death they were going to toss me in a padded room and slide food under the door every day or so. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.
I love that research has shown us how therapies like acupuncture can help during the treatment of addiction. Eating a certain diet also plays a huge role in your recovery. Personally, I found that I love to meditate and that’s something I never would have tried beforehand. Meditation helps to center me and to force my brain to quiet itself. As long as we continue to develop new treatment methods, we have a good chance to conquer the disease of addiction.
John Walker is a pseudonym for a surgeon living in the Tennessee area.