Doctor Who Almost Lost Everything To Fentanyl Addiction Now Helps Others In Recovery

By Victoria Kim 01/12/17

“I know what it’s like to put drugs ahead of everything else—ahead of your profession, ahead of your family. It was awful."

Dr. James Follette
Dr. James Follette Photo via YouTube

In a past life, Dr. James Follette was a successful anesthesiologist. But after getting hooked on fentanyl, damaging his medical career and nearly losing his family, he now works to help others get sober. His story was profiled last week (Jan. 4) on

“I know what works because it’s worked for me,” he said. Follette, 68, has been sober for 10 years. He’s treated patients addicted to heroin and other substances since 2009, just a few years after he was barred from working in the operating room as a result of his drug use.

The New Paltz native began injecting fentanyl in 1987 while working as the chief anesthesiologist in a hospital in Indiana. At the time, he had every material marker of success: children in private school, three airplanes, and a house with a pool and an elevator. But that wasn’t enough for him. He sought something else in drugs. 

“There must have been a part of me that asked, ‘Is that all there is?’ And that’s when I started using fentanyl,” he said. “After a month I was using so much I couldn’t keep up.” Follette enjoyed having “free access to drugs” while working in the hospital, until he reached a boiling point while on vacation. He went into withdrawal, what he describes as the worst experience in his life.

Soon after he completed a three-day detox program, the hospital found out that he was taking fentanyl from the operating room and fired him. After a brief stint in addiction treatment, Follette returned to his home state to continue his anesthesiology career. But he didn’t stop using. “My disease was active, I was still sick,” he recalled.

“I know what it’s like to have cravings,” he said. “I know what it’s like to put drugs ahead of everything else—ahead of your profession, ahead of your family. It was awful.”

The state board ultimately barred him from working in the operating room in 2007, and to make matters worse, he was also outed for his drug use in a local newspaper. But Follette took this opportunity to change course, and got his certification from the American Board of Addiction Medicine. He is now an addiction medicine specialist.

Follette says working in addiction treatment allows him to combine his love of studying brain chemistry with what he’s learned from his own experience. “It really has been the fulfillment of my life experience, and using that to help other people has been so rewarding,” he said. “I get people in here that are just broken, and they end up turning their lives around and getting jobs and getting families back together, and becoming happy people again.”

He has two offices in Central New York, where he sees patients for counseling and group therapy. Follette found success in Narcotics Anonymous, so his own program is also based on the 12-step method.

He’s also licensed to prescribe Suboxone, the drug that’s used to wean people off of opioid dependence. He incorporates medication-assisted treatment with some patients, in conjunction with counseling. He says 85% of his patients are addicted to heroin. 

After having been through it all, Follette has no regrets. “Whatever happened to get me to where I am today, it was worth it," he said. "I look at it as God doing for me what I couldn’t do for myself.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr