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Dermatologist Cheryl Karcher Returns to Practice and Prominence After Addiction and Arrest

By Paul Gaita 07/26/16

Karcher said that her addiction was the result of frequent Percocet use to contend with the pain of five surgeries in three years.

Dermatologist Cheryl Karcher Returns to Practice and Prominence After Addiction and Arrest
Photo YouTube

New York-based dermatologist Cheryl Karcher, whose insight into skin care had made her a regular health and beauty consultant on television and in print, was herself the subject of intense media scrutiny in 2014 when a SWAT team entered her Park Avenue practice and arrested her on 50 counts of forging prescriptions for opioid painkillers. A subsequent trial revealed that Karcher had used her patients’ personal information to forge prescriptions in order to feed her addiction to Percocet.

A controversial ruling from the presiding judge allowed her to complete 18 months of treatment through the New York Judicial Diversion program without pleading guilty and losing her medical license. Karcher has spent the last few years slowly rebuilding her career and reputation, which was the subject of a recent profile in the New York Times.

In an interview for the feature, Karcher said that her addiction was the result of frequent Percocet use to contend with the pain of five surgeries in three years, including the complete replacement of one shoulder. The drug quickly became an everyday part of her life, even a pick-me-up after a long day at work. “Some people would have wine,” she said. “Me, I would come home and pop two Percocet. And then I’d peel the apples to cook, clean the house, do the laundry, I’d make my phone calls, write my papers. I’d do everything I needed to do. Then I’d crash. Next day, I’d wake up, do it all again.”

Years in this addictive spiral finally spurred Karcher to find a solution for her addiction, but shame and fear of losing her practice kept her from utilizing the New York Health Committee for Physician Health, which the American Medical Association established to treat doctors with mental health or drug issues. Karcher also suffered from the delusion that addicts were “lowlifes.” As she explained, “[I really felt like] ‘what is wrong with you, just don’t drink that glass of wine’ or whatever. A lot of doctors feel this way.”

While still maintaining her busy practice and appearances on medial outlets like CBS, CNN and The Doctors—as well as her role as “consulting dermatologist” for the Miss Universe competition—Karcher joined Caduceus, a 12-step program for medical professionals in 2012 and sought treatment with an addiction psychiatrist. But she said that she wasn’t surprised when the arrest came two years later. An office worker at her practice had been arrested for selling drugs, which had placed her under scrutiny as well. “Of course they thought I sold,” said Karcher. “If I’d been them, I would have thought so, too.”

The collapse of her life and career was swift. She was prevented from treating patients until her case was decided, and her consulting contract with Avon was taken away. Her biggest regret was that her children would suffer as a result of her addiction: “I was picking my daughter up from this little parade, and I heard her say, ‘Where’s my mommy?’ And I started to say, ‘I’m here, honey,’ when the little girl standing next to her said, ‘She’s probably in jail.’ And my daughter just lost it, crying and crying.” Karcher also said that she has lingering guilt about her family’s nanny, who picked up falsified prescriptions filled out in her own name for Karcher. “She was a part of our family, and I never saw her again after the arrest,” she reflected. “I go to bed many nights wishing I could apologize.”

Though the New York press was less than sympathetic to the ruling handed down in Karcher’s trial, she said that word of mouth about her addiction as the root of the arrest helped to pave the way for her return to her profession. Patients and fellow doctors alike recognized that while Karcher had committed a grave error in forging the prescriptions, she had done so to feed a drug problem, not to profit from the sale of medication. “I don’t think there is such a thing as a victimless crime, but this was about her personal pain,” said Marie Komisar, executive director of the National Association of Women Judges, who is also a friend of Karcher.

Karcher is also aware that her position and race may be perceived as a factor in a more positive outcome for her case than for others. But she also noted that New York is a more progressive state in regard to the treatment of addicts than other areas of the country; the Governor’s office has been consistent in passing legislation to combat opioid and heroin addiction and pave more direct routes to treatment. As she noted, “I saw people with less privilege, less education [than I], treated the same way I was. The judge in my case understood addiction so well.” 

She also credits the New York Committee for Physician Health and the Office of Professional Medical Conduct for making sure that she completed the required drug testing and processing through the court system to return to her professional life. Karcher is currently practicing medicine at the office she held at the time of her arrest, as well as her own office on Fifth Avenue. She acknowledged that her life in recovery has been touched by a surfeit of good luck. “Nobody asks for this disease,” she said. “Nobody wants to be addicted. But the good news is there’s a way out. And it can really turn a life into one of great gratitude, humility and joy. I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone else’s.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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