"Janus Doctor" Was the Stuff of Patients' Nightmares
A formerly drug-addled surgeon tells The Fix how he would secretly shoot up during surgery and infect his patients' wounds.
Dr. James J. Scheiner, now 76, was an orthopedic surgeon for over 30 years. He spent many of them abusing the narcotics that were so readily available to him—and harming his patients in the process. He says that he looks back on his story as "a ruined life," even though he managed to get clean after being sent to prison back in the '80s. Now he's written a memoir about his two-faced existence—The Janus Doctor: A Nightmare of Drugs and Deceit—with a mission to expose just how many of the people entrusted with our health are jeopardizing it through their addictions.
Speaking with The Fix from his Maryland home, Scheiner recalls how, struggling against anti-Semitism and academic difficulties to get into medical school in the 1950s, he first took drugs to enhance his performance. While cleaning out the rat colony in the zoology building at the University of Cincinnati, he shared his troubles with a sympathetic retired professor—who introduced him to amphetamines. "To me, it was a wonder drug," Scheiner says. "Suddenly I was able to study for hours." But starting from his residency in Texas, and continuing long into his career as an orthopedic surgeon in Virginia, it was mainly opiate painkillers—above all, Demerol—that gripped him. He would inject himself three or four times a day. "You get this feeling of euphoria, as if you are omnipotent," he says. "Which most doctors have anyway... It's an occupational hazard; you feel as if you're a demigod!"
Having patients' lives in his hands didn't stop him. "I'd feel very alert for a while after I took it, maybe one hour," he tells us. "But then I'd have to leave the room mid-operation to go and inject myself again." Many times, he harmed his patients by causing infections: "When you use these drugs you start perspiring, and during surgery my perspiration would drip into the wound."
Some of Scheiner's colleagues knew, he believes, but he never got busted, thanks to a "vow of silence" in the medical profession. Instead, his practice dwindled as he botched procedures and paperwork, so he seized a lucrative opportunity to conduct clinical trials for a drug company. He was finally caught forging results and inventing patients to feed his habit, and sent to a federal prison for fraud. "I probably could have avoided prison if I'd hired a top-notch lawyer," he says. "But I wanted to go. I could see the damage I was causing and I wanted to go cold turkey." Despite the odds, he succeeded, getting clean in prison without any treatment or support group—apart from the unlikely combined influence of a "wise rabbi" and a "notorious Black Panther member." Scheiner thinks the medical profession's omertà extends to the medical boards: after his release, he was permitted to keep his license, and promptly appointed as head of orthopedics at a VA hospital.
Scheiner stayed drug-free for the rest of his medical career, which included posts in the Middle East and Africa. (Although the drugs he was prescribed after a painful gall bladder operation five years ago led to a year-long relapse.) He says he wrote his book because "I still feel very guilty over what I did, betraying a sacred trust like that, and I want to mitigate the hurt I caused." He believes that people need to be more aware of the risk that their own physicians are abusing drugs; his research in recent years suggests to him that around 15% of doctors do so—"and that's not including recreational use, the ones that go and get drunk, and are on call." He pauses when asked what it was like to be a "Janus" doctor, deceiving everyone around him. "Horrible," he says. "Just horrible."