Two Nurses Who Volunteered for PHP Programs

By Anne M. Fletcher 01/23/13
Drunk nurse via Shutterstock

Hope M. is a nurse whose job required her to be on the road much of the time. When she realized that her drinking had gotten the best of her, she voluntarily went to a prominent residential rehab and informed her employer (who had never expressed concerns about her drinking). She subsequently went to an outpatient program and faithfully attended two AA meetings a week. At the first rehab’s suggestion, Hope enrolled in her state’s PHP because she “thought it would prevent any doubt in my employer’s mind regarding alcohol use and would also serve as a support in my recovery.”

But she found “that was not the case—I didn’t know what I was in for. The frequency of the random drug screens proved to be quite stressful for carrying out my job. I had to call in to the program every day, six days a week. And when I was required to have a test, I had to search out a lab wherever I was. I would occasionally have to cut a client meeting short or reschedule an appointment so I could be available to travel to a collection site.”

“I went into it voluntarily, but they had the same requirements as if I were stealing narcotics," said psychiatric nurse Candace M. "I felt like I was treated like a criminal."

Over the course of 14 months, Hope had 40 negative alcohol screens (showing she’d had nothing to drink), but after she missed six tests, she was reported to her employer and the board of nursing for being noncompliant. Fortunately, when she went before the board and shared all she had done to maintain her sobriety—from frequenting AA meetings to attending recovery conferences to reading books about recovery—the board dismissed her from the monitoring program a year early. All in all, she said, “It was a horrible, punitive, and shaming experience—it took a terrible emotional toll. There was absolutely nothing helpful about it. I would never do it again.”

Candace M. is a psychiatric nurse who went to outpatient treatment for benzodiazepine and alcohol addiction in the mid-1990s, after which she worked in several addiction treatment centers. She felt that she was helping people and was “gung-ho about AA.” But after about 10 years, she started drinking again and checked herself into the rehab at which she worked. After about five months of doing well, her alcohol counselor suggested that, “to stay on the straight and narrow,” Candace should enroll in her state’s impaired nurses program.

Candace said, “I went into it voluntarily, but they had the same requirements as if I were stealing narcotics. I felt like I was treated like a criminal. I couldn’t comply with the requirements because I had to be in the program for five years and I was in school full-time, getting my masters. I had to go to therapy once a week, three AA meetings a week and two group therapy meetings a week. All of these things cost money, and I had lost my health insurance.” When she could no longer continue the program for financial reasons, they took away her nursing license. “The day that I gave up my nursing license,” Candace recalls, “I picked up alcohol again.”

When I first interviewed her, however, Candace had become active in Women for Sobriety and hadn’t had a drink in over a year. I followed her for another year, during which time she remained unemployed, despite her best efforts to find a job. The last time we corresponded she told me, “I am black-balled to get another job. Put my name in a Google search, and you’ll find I relinquished my license because I would not do the [PHP] program. I would not do the program because I could not afford it. It’s totally unfair.”

Cases like Hope’s and Candace’s explain why many health-care professionals don’t seek help from their PHPs for drug and alcohol problems before getting caught by their employers.

Anne M. Fletcher is the author of Inside Rehab: The Surprising Truth About Addiction Treatment—and How to Get Help That Works (Viking, Feb. 2013) and Sober for Good: New Solutions for Problem Drinking—Advice From Those Who Have Succeeded (Houghton/Harcourt, 2001).

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