Doctor-Turned-Sober Home Owner Describes Descent Into Addiction

By Kelly Burch 04/29/19

The former small town West Virginia doctor described how his own addiction and poor prescribing habits changed his life forever.

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Doctor-Turned-Sober Home Owner

Dr. Lou Ortenzio popped his first opioid pain pills in 1988, long before most Americans knew what an opioid was. 

Over the next 15 years, the small town doctor in West Virginia saw more and more patients asking for powerful painkillers, while he himself became more addicted.

Whereas older generations in Appalachia had lived with ailments and pain, never wanting to seem “complainy,” in the 1990s Ortenzio began to see a shift in patient perspective. 

“The new generation that came in the 1980s, those kids began to have the expectation that life should be pain-free,” he told The Atlantic. “If you went to your physician and you didn’t come away with a prescription, you did not have a successful visit.”

Between 1995 and 2005 the number of pharmaceutical sales reps nearly tripled and Ortenzio began to have more and more sales reps knocking on his door pushing the latest painkillers. 

“It went from a dozen [salesmen] a week to a dozen a day,” he said. “If you wrote a lot of scrips, you were high on their call list. You would be marketed to several times a day by the same company with different reps.”

Throughout the late 90s and early 2000s Ortenzio found himself writing more and more prescriptions. As he became known as a doctor who would easily prescribe pills, more patients sought him out.

At the same time he was taking more pills, even asking a friend to fill prescriptions for him. When he tried to quit he would experience symptoms of withdrawal, which gave him understanding for the predicament that many of his patients found themselves in. 

He said, “I couldn’t be away from my supply.”

In 2004, after his wife divorced him, Ortenzio got sober following a religious experience. Other doctors turned to The Physician Health Program, run by the West Virginia State Medical Association, which has helped more than 230 doctors in West Virginia get sober.

Yet Ortenzio’s sobriety wasn’t the end of opioids ruining his life. Soon after he stopped using, federal agents raided his office, and in 2006 Ortenzio pleaded guilty to fraudulent prescribing. He paid $200,000 in restitution, lost his medical license, and had to complete 1,000 hours of community service while under supervised release for five years. 

Once a promising physician, Ortenzio was 53 and delivering pizzas, but he was at peace. After years of volunteering with a recovery center, Ortenzio opened a sober living home, which now serves six men, with plans to expand by opening another center for women.

Although he will never be able to practice medicine again, Ortenzio is happy where he is today, sustaining his own recovery and helping other people get sober. 

“I made pizza deliveries where I used to make house calls,” he said. “I delivered pizzas to people who were former patients. They felt very uncomfortable, felt sorry for me. It didn’t bother me. I was in a much better place.” 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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