Anonymous Friday July 30, 1999, was one of the worst days of my life. That morning, I went to my office and was visited by two DEA agents who wanted to discuss my prescribing practices. In that moment, I almost stopped breathing. My 'prescribing practices' included continuously ordering hydrocodone for my relatives, living or deceased, picking it up and taking it. I knew this day was coming.
For years, I had been taking hydrocodone several times a day, every day. I was addicted. Really addicted. Many times I tried stopping cold turkey or tapering, only to start using again. Worse than the physical symptoms of withdrawal was the dysphoria, a deep mental funk.
I could not live without it and I could not live with it. My life had become a house of cards. I lived in constant fear of running out and getting caught. And still, this was better than what I had been doing.
Prior to discovering the joy of hydrocodone, I was drinking alcoholically. I drank a lot, when I was not working or on-call. Life was awful. Every morning included mandatory retching, shaking, feeling dread, then off to work. The fear of what I was doing to my life was incapacitating but was not enough for me to change.
Work was all I had left. I was watching my life fall apart from the inside out. My relationship with my wife consisted of her telling me that I was a liar and she hates liars. I told her the only thing I lied to her about was my drinking which meant that I lied about every aspect of my life. My two year-old daughter could tell with 100 percent accuracy when I was drinking and I lied to her too. I had no social life or outside interests.
The afternoon of July 30, 1999, I called the PHP and spoke with Greg Gable and Tom Hobbs, MD. They were not appalled and knew what to do. I was to go to Marworth, an in-patient detox and rehabilitation center. The easy part was telling my wife I had to go; much harder was telling my daughter I had to leave. That was one of the saddest moments in my life.
Fifty-four days after being admitted to Marworth, I was discharged and returned home. I was losing my medical license, already lost my DEA license and job. I had criminal charges pending and my wife did not like me. In spite of this, I felt the best I had in a very long time. For the first time in years, I was free of that ceaseless urge to change how I felt by drinking or using drugs. But I know me, my fear was of falling back into unwanted familiar habits. This is when the PHP did what they do best.
A few days after leaving Marworth, I drove to Harrisburg and met with PHP staff (their idea, not mine). The PHP offered me a solution in the form of a five-year monitoring agreement which included:
- random urine drug screens (at least twice per week for the first two years)
- weekly group therapy
- weekly individual therapy
- 3 peer support meetings per week
- 1 Caduceus (professional peer support) meeting per week
- frequent phone contact with PHP staff
This agreement seemed daunting but I made the decision to fully comply. Gradually, the requirements became part of my life. I could live with them. As a result, I got my life back. I began to have hope. I stayed sober.
What an amazing journey! The PHP helped me find recovery and held me accountable, long enough for the recovery to internalize. I have witnessed many other physicians experience recovery with PHP support.
Since entering into recovery, my life is the best it has ever been. I am a practicing physician treating people who have the disease of addiction. I have the respect and love of my family. I am part of a network of recovering people. Today, my word is good.
I remember where I came from and what I can fall back into if my recovery slips away. To maintain my recovery and to pass along what was given to me, I am involved in service work and attend several recovery meetings per week, including a Caduceus meeting. I thank God every day for giving me my life back.
I am in my 17th year of continuous sobriety. The PHP helps restore lost physicians to productive lives while safe guarding the physician and community at large.
Dean Steinberg, MD
Oct. 12, 1988: DEA agents invaded my home in search of evidence regarding distribution of controlled substances. More than 70,000 doses were registered to me and not accounted for. That day was the first time I ever admitted (to the agents) that I was a drug addict. They had “other ideas.” This was the end of life as I knew it.
My Pennsylvania medical license and DEA registration were suspended/revoked, as were my hospital privileges. Felony charges were issued three years later. I had to stop using narcotics, and that was not possible.
On Oct. 14, two days later, knowing that my supply was frighteningly low, I did prepare for suicide. I prepared two syringes, one with Midazolam and one filled with Pavulon, and placed them in my top drawer. That same day, an old acquaintance of mine who had previously been in much trouble accepted my call. He gave me a phone number and said, “You do not have to feel this way anymore. Life can be beyond your wildest dreams.”
The phone number was for the PHP. I spoke somewhat honestly for the first time about my addiction. They sent a gentleman to my home to escort me to Marworth, a rehabilitation facility. I have been involved with the PHP as a participant, monitor, and committee member for the past 27-plus years, with continuous sobriety since Day One. PHP provided the framework for my recovery, monitoring, and letters of support whenever needed. I owe them my life.
I resumed practicing anesthesia in 1989 and have been professionally successful since that time. This is a direct result of PHP intervention. My story is a miracle. My path would not have been feasible without the support and guidance of PHP.
Tina Fell -
My Experience with the Pennsylvania Physicians’ Health Program
When my husband's alcoholism came to light, he went into a rehab center and I went into a crisis. It felt like a hand-grenade had gone off in my living room, and the pieces of my life were flying around me like shrapnel and debris. I honestly didn't know what to hold onto, and what to let blow away. The counselor at the rehab center recommended that I get in touch with the PHP to learn about the voluntary monitoring program for physicians. Although I was reluctant to share our family secrets and to ask for the help that we needed, I found the phone number on the Internet and called the PHP while my husband was still in inpatient treatment. The reception I got from the PHP was warm and welcoming. I realized that I didn't have to find my own way, because others gone before me on this path.
When I told the PHP counselor that my plan for my husband after his rehab discharge was to administer a breathalyzer test before he went to work, when he came home, before he drove with the kids, etc., I was quite wisely told that I couldn't be a spouse and the sobriety police. What would I do if my husband kept drinking? How could I enforce these rules? What would happen with empty threats and ultimatums that might not work? I listened to the information about their program and started to have hope that I wouldn’t be alone to shoulder the burden of living with an alcoholic.
Fast forward two years, and our family is doing well. I attend Al-anon meetings, and have found a whole group of people who understand this disease. I have learned that I am not responsible for anyone else’s drinking or sobriety. My husband has a strong AA program and attends 5-6 meetings per week. He has maintained his sobriety by using all the tools available, one of which is the PHP monitoring program. He has random blood and urine tests, and follows the program requirements of meetings and counseling. We don’t look at these program requirements as an intrusion or a punishment. Instead, they are a welcome means of accountability. It is a way to reestablish trust and prove that he can “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk”. Alcoholism can’t be cured, but it’s a disease that can be managed with the right strategy. I am grateful to the PHP for helping us live with alcoholism.
PHP Medical Director Jon Shapiro, MD, ABAM - Almost once a year our phone rings at PHP. It’s that dreaded call relating that a doctor has taken his/her own life. This is someone that we have met and spoken to many times. We are talking about someone we have coaxed into recovery with a promise of a better life to come. Some people don’t grasp that hope and success.
More often than once a day a physician kills him/herself in the U.S. and substance abuse is a contributory factor for many of them. Our friends seem most vulnerable when they are first intervened upon or following a relapse.
So much of our mission is wrapped up in corralling our colleagues into their evaluation and treatment and setting up their monitoring that we sometimes forget to get the good message out. Our doctors do get better. They grow happier and the vast majority return to productive personal and professional lives.
Let us remember and honor the many Pennsylvania doctors who have died from substance abuse. Let us never neglect to broadcast this message of hope. Substance abuse is a disease. People can and do recover. We love you and miss you Jim F.(1959-2015).
Abram M. Hostetter, MD, served as chair, Foundation Board of Trustees from the year that the PHP
became official (1986-2002). He says remembers that milestone fondly. "During my time as board chair we saw significant developments. We incorporated what is now the Physicians’ Health Program into the Foundation to impact the lives of doctors. The organization, has grown a tremendous amount since the days when we were seemingly a small committee with one staff person."
Since then, the program has grown significantly in reputation and in services. It is now one of the largest and most fully developed physicians' health programs in the country. The PHP has a cooperative working relationship with the State Board of Medicine, State Board of Osteopathic Medicine, Pennsylvania Medical Society, and are contracted by the Pennsylvania Dental Society to assist all licensed dental professionals. PHP assists all physicians (MDs and DOs), physician assistants, medical students, dentists, dental hygienists, and expanded function dental assistants.
Today, the PHP is needed more than ever, according to Hostetter. "Physicians are now working more in teams and are not their own boss anymore. In the past they were able to set their own pace, but they are being pushed to do more than ever. Physicians are under scrutiny, fear the threat of malpractice, bend to time pressures at the same time are accountable to more government regulations, licensing, MOC, EHRs and CME. Teams are economically dependent on the doctor.
"Our culture of chemical support makes it more likely for physicians under pressure to turn to drinking, tranquilizers, pain medicines and more," says Hostetter. "We need to keep the PHP strong to catch them when they fall."
Anonymous As a medical student, my experience in the PHP has been quite interesting. Initially, I was hesitant, mainly because I had never imagined myself in a program like this. However, after almost a year in the PHP, I can honestly say that this program is the best thing that has ever happened to me.
My family and closest friends constantly remind me how much better I am since joining the PHP. The staff is very kind and it is clear that they care about you and your well being. My most memorable patient experience that reminded me how great the program has been for me was on my psychiatric rotation. I was talking to one of my patients and another patient happened to be sitting at the table with us. I had never met her before and I felt a very unique connection and understanding with her.
She mentioned that she no longer drinks at all because no one likes being around her when she drinks. This patient went on describing her story, and I was able to relate on a very personal level. I understood her intimately, as my family and friends have been telling me how great I am to be around since I’ve stopped drinking. Through the PHP, I feel like I am finally in a place where I have always wanted to be. I feel happier than I ever have before.
Mainly, I am grateful to PHP for making me a better person and I know I will be a better doctor.
Greg Gable, Executive Director of the Professionals Program, Caron Foundation, and former PHP staffer wrote: I came to the Medical Society in 1986 to talk about different initiatives regarding alcohol interventions in primary care settings. At the time I was doing EAP work in companies around Harrisburg and Carlisle, and the idea of a professionally based program was very appealing to me. I was hired to help establish the program.
The concepts of professional peer assistance, intervention, rehabilitation, monitored recovery and advocacy were very powerful, and over time this became a well-accepted model. We asked for and received help from several states where programs had been established, and we moved forward.
This work has been so meaningful to me on both professional and personal levels. PHP gives us an opportunity to be supportive and helpful at a time when the physician needs it most, while holding him or her accountable to do the right thing in terms of recovery. I don’t know any other professional relationship that affords such a longitudinal connection. I worked with people, many times, for 10 to 15 years. PHP offered me the most rewarding work experience I could ever imagine.
On the personal side, I had already become interested in 12-step recovery, but had not been involved in Al-Anon until working with PHP. Being involved with the program helped me to find my way into Al-Anon and into a personal recovery that I had no idea I needed prior to being involved with this work. The medical director we hired after Rocky left was Penny Ziegler, MD, who enriched my life even more and mentored me in this work.
I have much gratitude to the PHP and to the Pennsylvania Medical Society for seeing the importance of professional support and advocacy for people with the illness of addiction and co-occurring disorders. Congratulations to the PHP on this anniversary celebration.
Adam D. Scioli, D.O.
I was introduced to the Physicians Health Program after being discharged from treatment more than ten years ago. At the time, I had just lost my mother to breast cancer and would soon lose my anesthesia career as a result of being convicted of drug offenses that I committed in the service of my escalating addiction.
The PHP stood by me as my license and my freedom was taken from me. They agreed to monitor and guide me, despite the strong possibility of my never again returning to the practice of medicine. Dr. Gable, PHP's Executive Director at the time, kept in touch with my family and forwarded me books that kept me both hopeful and spiritually grounded while I was incarcerated.
The further my professional prospects began to fade away, the closer PHP held on to me. Over time, monitors became mentors, and eventually even friends, who helped me get back in touch with values that my addiction had stolen from me.
During the course of the next several years that followed, peers whom I had met through PHP paved for me a path back to medicine. That path looked nothing like the one I would have sketched out, but it has proven to be a much more gratifying path than I could have chosen without their selfless guidance.
PHP remains a critical part of my life, and I am grateful to continue to share my recovery with them.
Penny Ziegler, MD, I came to the Physicians' Health Program (PHP) in 1991 as the second medical director, having previously worked in two addiction treatment programs. It was an amazing experience from the start. Greg Gable and I were running around the state doing outreach, interventions, fund raising, pep talks for participants, visiting new participants while they were in treatment programs, etc. There was tremendous enthusiasm and dedication on the part of everyone on the staff, and a great
esprit de corps.
Several important milestones occurred over the five years that I was with PHP. The program continued to grow, both in terms of numbers of physicians and other professionals served and in scope of services. Pennsylvania joined and became very active in the brand new Federation of State Physician Health Programs, the national organization developed to promote physician health, support state programs, and begin setting standards for monitoring professionals. We established a systematic drug testing program. We built credibility and working relationships with the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs, the State Board of Medicine and the Professionals Health Monitoring Program.
Overall it was an incredibly intense, meaningful and productive period for me and for PHP. When I moved to Virginia and returned to the treatment side of addiction medicine and physician health, I took all of the skills and experience I had learned in Pennsylvania. Over the years, PHP’s cast of characters has changed, but its dedication to reaching out to and advocating for professionals in distress, assisting them in recovering and returning to practice, and simultaneously protecting the citizens of Pennsylvania has remained strong and resilient. Congratulations on 30 wonderful years!
MD, I first came to the PHP office in late 1993. At that point I was walking around with a pocketful of pills as my security blanket. I was sure they would search me, so I made sure to empty out my pockets. Imagine my surprise when I went in to the office and was warmly welcomed and treated with kindness and respect – no strip search! Penny Z. took me into her office. I really don’t remember too much of our conversation, but she had a warm smile and I left with a feeling of hope. I subsequently struggled to stay sober so Penny “suggested” that I go to Marworth. My brain started to clear there, and when I finally realized what my real problem was (I am an alcoholic/addict) and that there was a solution, I jumped into recovery with both feet.
Wendie and Shirley were part of my journey early on and always made me feel like they really cared and were interested in my life and recovery when I phoned in. The PHP friends and family weekends were a great way to meet the PHP staff on a deeper level – and have a ton of fun, too! Greg G and I became friends after a few years and did some hiking and social things together. After my initial contract was up, I re-upped again and again and again – it was a no-brainer. The PHP saved my life and my career – it really is that simple.
At 3+ years sober, I was shocked to be asked to help the PHP. Apparently they saw things in me that I couldn’t see for myself. I have really grown personally and professionally from my association with the PHP. Over the past 22 years I have been a committee member, an assistant medical director, a foundation board member and, lastly, the actual medical director. As a participant, it was easy to criticize how some things were done, but sitting on the other side of the desk gives you a much larger perspective and understanding of all the challenges facing recovering docs.
Over the years some things have changed – our location, computerized records, drug testing, and staff members, but at its core the PHP has remained the same – a safe haven and a source of wise, compassionate direction for physicians and dentists who are struggling with addiction/alcoholism. I am proud of my association with the PHP and of all the great staff – past and present. We are fortunate to have a PHP in our state to start with. We are truly blessed to have such a great one.
Michael S. Antoon, DO, FAAEM, It was in February of 1989, and I appeared to be a very successful EM doc, but in my head I knew my life was in crisis but I did know what to do or how to get out.
I knew I was an alcoholic and was using scheduled drugs to get through work and the day. I was drinking and using drugs all day and night just to give the appearance that I was normal and successful.
I had a DUI and knew I was being investigated by the FBI, IRS and DEA. No one else knew except my closest friend who was also my attorney. On March 13, 1989, after having my home searched by the FBI, DEA and IRS, I entered treatment for drug and alcohol abuse at the Mayo Clinic. When I got home, beside going to AA meetings, I called the PHP because I did not know how to deal with licensing issues, credentialing issues, malpractice issues, legal issues and many other situations that eventually would come up.
I can honestly say that over a 25-year period, PHP has helped and supported me with every issue. In the beginning, I did not believe any of the things I have now would ever be possible. Because of the help, guidance and support of PHP, I have a great and respected medical career. I am also happy, serene and drug free.
In short, I owe PHP my life and happiness.
Anonymous, It is very hard for me to express in words what the PHP means to me. How can one truly express enough gratitude to an organization that saved their life? I can’t; and that is exactly what the PHP did for me – they saved my life.
I became a “member” of the PHP at a very tumultuous time in my life over four years ago. It was a time where I felt the world was caving in on me. I was the unhappiest I had ever been in my life and that led to me self-medicating myself in an effort to quiet my misery. When that stopped working, I decided that the best remedy would be to end my life.
Fortunately Lou Verna from the PHP was there at just the right time and offered me the gift of 88 days of treatment. I will never forget how caring and compassionate Lou was to both my family and me during that difficult time. I accepted the treatment without hesitation, but then the hard work began. When I got out of treatment I needed a lot of guidance and advice on how to “rebuild” my life. The PHP was always there for me. Whether it was Lou, Vicki or even Dr. Jon Shapiro, they were always a phone call away with the advice and support that I needed.
Since leaving treatment and beginning recovery, my life has become better than any dreams I have ever had. I am now married with a beautiful baby daughter. I have a wonderful new job and was just promoted to assistant medical director and I have wonderful close friends who are all in recovery with me.
I owe all of this to the foundation that the PHP helped me to build. I have come to think of the PHP not merely as a support organization, but actually like a part of my family. My wife and I try to visit the PHP staff in Harrisburg when we get the time so that we can share our blessings and joy with them. I am truly grateful to the PHP and will be so for the rest of my life.
Retired Case Manager Lou Verna, MAC, LPC, CIP, It is never more evident to recognize the need for change than those in recovery from the devastation of alcohol, drugs, or mental health issues.
Change is a constant shift in anybody’s daily life. However, change makes the biggest impact on the individual who is working toward sobriety on a daily basis. The PHP has demonstrated the ability to support and facilitate change for recovering physicians over the past 30 years. A remarkable achievement accomplished through the program’s longevity and dedication of all those involved.
The PHP has found its strength in the participants and staff evident through their ability to give back what they have received. Participants have shown a remarkable ability to address their personal and professional lives with a clearer vision on a daily basis. Members, through their dedication, became more insightful to their needs as people.
Through their searching process they learned there was another person within themselves beyond the title of “MD.” Participants on numerous occasions spoke about becoming better physicians, taking more time to listen and recognize the needs of their patients. We all need support in our daily lives. Through its longevity, the PHP will continue to offer balance, support, and growth through its continuing work and accomplishments, ensuring the safety of its participants and the public.
Anonymous, Looking back I wished I had done some things very differently in my professional and personal life. But if I could share one lesson I learned, it is never be afraid to ask for help. Sooner rather than later. Asking for help is a sign of strength, being honest with oneself and taking full advantage of what life has to offer. It spares the pain and consequences loved ones must endure by not seeking help sooner. Not everyone will give you a second chance. But those who do will give you the hope Emily Dickinson said in [this excerpt of] a poem which took me so many years to understand:
"Hope" is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
PHP Compliance Assistant Wendie Dunkin - In the past 30 years, the PHP has had many success stories. There is one, however, that impacted me personally. As the person who collects fees from our participants, I, at times, find the task to be daunting—especially when requesting payment of past due fees prior to the mailing of an advocacy letter. This leads into my story.
There was a participant named Alice (named changed for anonymity) who was not the easiest person to talk with on the phone. Alice came into the PHP in the early stages of her recovery. She was usually combative, quick with a negative response and resented being in the program. Needless to say, I was typically on edge when taking her phone calls—wondering if a simple question or request would be retaliated with a sharp rebuttal.
As it happens, Alice’s career took her to another state where she enrolled in a second monitoring program. Her PHP file was eventually closed due to noncompliance. However, several years later, she contacted the PHP in need of an advocacy letter. I was nervous about having to inform Alice of her past due fees. All I could think of was our past exchanges and how negative they were. She immediately picked up on the hesitation in my voice and questioned it. I explained my anticipation. Her response was remarkable, “Now that would not be good recovery.”
WOW, she was a totally different person! It was gratifying to see such a dramatic change in her. Alice was considerate, respectful and clearly in good recovery. Her transformation was heartwarming and will remain a constant reminder for me of the positive impact programs like ours have in changing lives.
Julia E.Gabis, Esquire - Thanks to the PHP
For more than twenty-five years, I have had the privilege of representing physicians, dentists and other health professionals. One of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of my practice has been the representation of health professionals who have or may have a physical or mental impairment. For my clients who have connected with the Physicians’ Health Programs for help, the PHP has been a reliable, constant, compassionate and knowledgeable resource at every step in the process – helping to obtain an evaluation; supporting and monitoring recovery; and advocating for the retention or reinstatement of professional licenses.
Many things have changed in twenty-five years - the faces at the PHP, the laws and regulations governing professional practice; and certainly the nature of the practice of medicine and dentistry. The stresses inherent in the practice of medicine and dentistry have always been considerable – never more than today. Through it all, the PHP has been there. The PHP has saved lives and has helped many health professionals achieve a stable recovery and continue working. For that, I express my gratitude and look forward to working together in the years to come for the benefit of health professionals in Pennsylvania.
Stan Segal, MD - PHP Memories
I entered recovery in 1983 as an intern, predating the PHP by approximately four years. I dealt directly with the state of Pennsylvania, and was granted a full and unrestricted license in 1985 when applying for full licensure, with reasonable conditions such as random urines, notification of receiving any prescriptions for controlled substances, and notification of practice location. This was considered a disciplinary action, and remained on my license for approximately 25 years, something that would not have occurred if the PHP existed at that time.
I first encountered the PHP in 1987, when appearing at a hearing for a fellow resident at Hahnemann who was being dismissed from a neurosurgical program for substance abuse. Despite the advocacy of the newly formed PHP, the resident was expelled from the program. I was impressed by the passion of that advocacy, and was also fortunate to be directed to the PRN network in Florida, as I was about to move there to practice. This helped me secure a license in that state, due to the burgeoning connection between the physician advocacy groups of Pennsylvania and Florida.
I returned to Pennsylvania in 1991, and became involved with the PHP at that time, being involved as a participant, committee member, committee chair, and monitor. I have had the good fortune to know the staff and all the directors, and personally witnessed their dedication to the physicians suffering from chemical dependency, as well as their willingness to help direct physicians with other disorders towards the appropriate caregivers.
One of my favorite memories of PHP was of a retreat we held in Gettysburg, when a number of participants and their families met for a weekend of education and recovery. Traipsing around the battlefields of Gettysburg in complete darkness with our children beside us as we looked for ghosts was an experience I will never forget. It was a total blast.
I have had the good fortune to see the evolution of PHP throughout the years from a variety of perspectives, and all have been positive. I am grateful for the advocacy provided, and the second chance it has provided me and others to pursue our careers.
Betty Cottle, MD
Betty Cottle, MD, blazed a trail for what is now the Physicians’ Health Program as an early member of the PAMED Member Committee for Impaired Physicians. She then served as an intervener to physicians who were impaired. As a result, the PHP is near and dear to her heart. “Those were interesting times,” she said. “I fought hard for the Foundation and for physicians who needed help.” She originally was appointed to the committee because she commented that there were no women represented on the committee and “women physicians face the same problems that male physicians do.” So she found herself learning about the disease and reaching out to her fellow doctors to encourage recovery. She said that she met the most remarkable human beings through this service and it solidified her pledge as a doctor. “I took an oath when I graduated medical school to provide service to others. The Foundation let me do that in a meaningful way,” she said. Physicians struggling with addiction are human. They have put so much effort and dedication into their training, she said, it is hard to watch that go to waste. She likens her involvement with helping those facing the disease to the biblical analogy of being “my brother’s keeper.”
My husband’s ongoing family problems were out of control. He began self prescribing medication and became addicted. Seventeen years ago, the DEA came into his office. I was there. What I thought was the worst day of my life turned out to be the best day. My husband was going to get help. The next morning he was admitted to a rehabilitation hospital for treatment.
The DEA gave me the PHP’s telephone number and told me to call. The PHP referred me to Dr. Jon Shapiro. I spoke with Jon that day. He was very kind and gave me direction. After my husband’s release from rehab, we met with Jon. He had great influence in his recovery. In addition to his ongoing treatment, Jon referred him to the weekly Caduceus meetings where he was comfortable with his peers. I also attended the Caduceus spouse/significant other meetings which were very helpful along with other group meetings.
I am very grateful for all of the people with the PHP. Their monitoring program, along with other programs, were one of my safety zones. I am happy to say my husband’s health issues are controlled and he is doing well with his recovery.
Charlies Burns, MD
The first time I heard the words, "You're addicted, Doctor," it didn't make sense. I knew I had a problem, but I had always been able to stop before. Or so I thought! The reality of my life was that I was falling faster than I could lower my standards.
On the way from the interview room at [the rehabilitation facility] Marworth, I felt a terrible weight had been lifted from my heart. That was May 1989.
I knew alcohol was going to be a part of my life the very first time from the age of 14. I did not know alcohol and opioids would threaten to take away my dignity and everything else I valued in life, especially my family, job, and friends. I don't know any alcoholic who wakes up and says, "I have nothing to do for the next 25 years, so I guess I'll become a hopeless, helpless alcoholic and drug addict." But it happened.
From the very first time I experienced the high of alcohol, my brain chemistry was changed forever. I chased the feeling for a long time, ignoring the emptiness and loneliness inside. Instead, the false illusion that alcohol gives ran away with my feelings, and I along with it.
I initially thought I was recovering well, but I couldn't follow the simple 12-step formula. My wife, who saved my life and our family, recognized I was in trouble. She was going to Al-Anon and knew I needed inpatient rehabilitation again. So did the staff at Marworth, especially Marylyn Krause. She asked me to trust her and go to Alina Lodge for long-term care. At Alina Lodge, Mrs. Delaney told me I was "reluctant to recover." Confused, but determined not to die, lose my family or my job, I finally understood the meaning of powerlessness and surrender. It took time and gradually the 12-step program has given me a wonderful way to live.
That was a long time ago. But, as with all of us in recovery, events surrounding what I thought was the worst time in my life, turned out to be the transformation that my life needed. I never knew I needed a recovery, let alone that I could have one.
I joined PHP in 1990, and have had wonderful relationships with the staff, once I let go of my fear! My "handler" early on, Madelyn Orloski was as tough as nails, and told me how it was going to be. I needed that. We became good friends, and I have been fortunate to serve on the executive committee twice. Sitting at PHP meetings, I feel the genuine concern of the staff. I know they work hard to help the health care professionals of Pennsylvania. I can never repay the firmness and kindness they have given to me. They helped save my life, my family, and my professional career.
Mitchell West, DO -
My 30 years with the PHP
I can vividly recall the abject terror I felt in 1987 when I received a telephone call from Rocky McDermott, the medical director of what was then called the Pennsylvania Impaired Physicians Program. How did he find out about me, I wondered, and what was he going to make me do? I was so afraid to speak to him that I made my wife take his call. And so began my 30-year relationship with the PHP.
So, I went to treatment, signed a contract, entered a recovering physician’s group and submitted to weekly urine drug screens all for the purpose of maintaining my medical license. For much of the next 15 years, I tried, mostly in vain, to convince the PHP that I was doing well and was in stable recovery. In truth, my addiction to opioids was so severe that I could not put together even two days of sustained abstinence. The machinations I resorted to in order to maintain the guise of recovery were astonishing and over time, entirely futile. The consequences I experienced are familiar to most people with addictions and included a felony conviction for self-prescribing, a period of incarceration, progressively longer intervals of unemployment, financial hardship and ultimately the loss of my medical license. Through it all, I maintained a “relationship” with the PHP but needless to say, it was not characterized by a high level of trust. Unfortunately, I was unable, and no doubt unwilling, to grasp the essentials of a program of recovery. In 2003, my medical license was indefinitely suspended and my relationship with the PHP was terminated.
I had no idea what to do. I was so depressed that I saw a psychiatrist and began treatment for a mood disorder. I enrolled in graduate school in an attempt to find a new career but the stigma of being a physician without a license was so great that I had trouble finding gainful employment. I reconnected with my previous therapist and re-entered his recovering physician group and I went to Caduceus meetings. I leaned on my wife and family and friends for support and over time I began to change and recover. There was no epiphany or moment of clarity and to this day, I don’t fully understand how or why this happened but I am glad it did.
In 2013, the PHP was finally comfortable with my progress and offered me my fourth contract with them. Dr. Shapiro advocated for me at my hearing for re-licensure and my medical license was restored after a 10-year suspension. Today, I am working as an emergency physician for my previous employer. I also work for a drug and alcohol treatment center. In 2014, I was part of U.S. Attorney David Hickton’s Overdose Prevention Project and helped write the Overdose Prevention Guidelines. In November 2014, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy recognized me for the contribution I made to the project.
Sometimes I think I might have been the worst physician the PHP had to deal with over the past 30 years and after everything that transpired, I am grateful that they and the other important people in my life stuck with me. I would not be where I am today if not for all of them.
Kendra Parry, MS, CADC, CIP, CCSM Program Manager
There is nothing like working at the PHP. Some days are stressful, but every day is rewarding. The PHP makes and receives between 20,000-25,000 phone calls every year, and no two calls are ever the same. I have spoken to hundreds of participants and heard their stories. Not only do we talk about their recovery activities, but we talk about life. I have had calls about babies being born, loved ones passing away, finding/losing jobs, and the best place to have a steak in Vegas.
Earlier this summer I got a phone call from a participant that I will never forget. When I answered the phone I was greeted with, “WE DID IT!” This participant had recently completed his PHP monitoring agreement. During our conversation he talked about how he was so grateful for the PHP's help that he doesn’t feel like he completed the agreement, but that he and the PHP were responsible for reaching that milestone. It was not an easy road to the successful completion of his monitoring agreement, however, he embraced his recovery and never gave up.
This year, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the PHP has been amazing. In the last three years, the PHP and its participants have inspired me to set my own goals and to never quit working towards being the best version of myself. I am blessed to be a part of the PHP. Thank you for sharing and trusting me with your stories.
During our formative years, character traits develop while we observe those traits exhibited by family members and our friends. These adopted and emulated behaviors sometimes don’t lend themselves to living a functional path in life. During my upbringing, not only were some of these dysfunctional elements ongoing, but there were accolades given for perpetuating traditions.
With this manner of living in tow, I entered into the lifelong dedication needed to live and function within the profession of dentistry. Often in my career, when presented with a difficult situation, no consoling gestures outside of colleagues and immediate peers existed. I felt misunderstood as a person. I began to self medicate with alcohol to avoid dealing with the disease of depression.
It spiraled out of control, resulting in the loss of everything I ever valued in my life. My dental practice was part of that fallout. Under the auspices of the Pennsylvania Medical Society and the Foundation, in particular, resides a functional derivative entitled the Physicians' Health Program. It was determined by the State Board of Dentistry that by entering into an “agreements,” and through enrollment in the PHP, I could return to the profession of dentistry. My moment of change occurred upon my initial meeting with the people who administer that program. Whilst meeting with Lou Verna, Tiffany Booher and Kendra Parry, it was immediately apparent that I was in the presence of people who cared.
Within the entire PHP staff, there is an inherent disposition evident that shows concern for those people who have encountered difficulties while immersed in their medical professions. These difficulties can and will eventually spill over into their work affecting the adherence to ethics needed for humanistic care. The PHP has restored my trust in human behavior and has escorted me back to the privilege of practicing dentistry in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This program stands on its own merits through its protocol of communication and accountabilities. Congratulations are due for your first 30 years it is only a matter of time until a celebration of 60 years comes to fruition. Thank you for your time and all the consideration.
Michael A. McCormick, DO
I remember very well getting the call from the director of the PHP one afternoon as I was entering the hospital to round. He introduced himself and asked if I was "ok." Of course I was far from ok. He went on to explain what the PHP was and that many other docs had been in the same situation as me and had come out the other side even better. At what I thought was one of the worst moments of my life, he was so calm and supportive. I knew this call was coming for a long time and that my gig was up, yet I was still in shock.
Ten days later I found myself in a treatment facility where I would spend the next 90 days, beginning my recovery. Once I was discharged, I was scheduled at the PHP for the next day. I was able to meet with that director of the PHP and genuinely thank him for his help. The relationship had already transitioned from one of fear to really gratitude towards both he and the program.
I have been blessed to be in continuous sobriety since then. My recovery is based on so many things, but the PHP is a big part of that. The monitoring program, therapy groups, meetings, check-ins, and knowing that I always have their support are all vital. I have an extreme amount of gratitude around the PHP and my family and patients do as well. I will always support the PHP and the wonderful work that they do.
"Early recovery from drug addiction was full of pain and shame. My relapse after eight months of sobriety had led me to license revocation in Delaware. I had been fired. Relations were strained at home. An attorney had told me that he wouldn’t represent me because he loathed addicts. My mentor in medicine declined to write me a letter of recommendation because he didn’t think that physician addicts should return to work.
In an attempt to restart my professional life I came to Harrisburg to defend my license in Pennsylvania. Greg Gable met me in a coffee shop near the board hearing. He comforted me with his calming presence, and competent professional demeanor. He spoke for me at the hearing, tipping the scales in favor of me retaining my license. My profession was re-launched with my recovery.
After 25 years in recovery I look back on those who made it possible. I attended the Caduceus meeting in Philadelphia where I was greeted and found that I was neither unique nor alone. My wife stayed around and worked with me to build a wonderful family. I benefited from the amazing wisdom of my sponsor Steve G. And through it all PHP educated me, supported me and advocated for my healthy progression through this wonderful journey which is recovery."
Raymond Truex Jr., MD, FAANS, FACS "The PHP saved my life."
Paul Dende, DO "He said the 5 most powerful words: I know how you feel."
Kirk Tolhurst, MD "It was the darkest moment of my life."