Top Doctor Details Opioid Addiction, Going To Rehab

By Maggie Ethridge 02/28/19
When she was caught stealing meds from work, a top anesthesiologist was taken to rehab to deal with her addiction and save her career.
Top doctor giving an in-depth interview about opioid addiction and rehab

As a top anesthesiologist in Georgia, “Alison” had accepted a job as the medical director of the anesthesiology department and was the most-requested anesthesiologist by both patients and surgeons. Her addiction almost cost her that position.

Alison gave an in-depth interview to Marie Claire, exposing the details of both her opioid addiction and undergoing treatment once she was found out.

Alison explained that as a child growing up in a big family, perfection was the minimum expectation. All of her siblings are overachievers—three are physicians, one worked for the CIA, and one chaired a university department. Alison enrolled in medical school at 19 and went on to become a successful anesthesiologist, once administering to a sitting president.

After a short affair with a nurse she met at work, her 11-year marriage ended. Alison married the nurse after a few years of dating him on and off. Their relationship was emotionally strained and combustible—another addiction, Alison realized, looking back.

The second marriage wasn’t working. They fought often, and Alison learned that her husband was using the synthetic opioid, fentanyl, a drug that she regularly administered in her line of work. Her husband insisted that he wasn’t addicted, and Alison told Marie Claire he “was the first face I ever put to drug use, and I worshipped the ground he walked on at that point, so I thought: this person is not a loser, he knows what he’s doing, he’s good at what he does.”

Alison began bringing home leftover fentanyl from surgeries for her husband to use, and one day—on an impulse—she shot a tiny amount into a vein in the back of her hand. “All of a sudden, everything was OK,” Alison said. “I would say it’s like immediately going from zero to the happiest buzz you’ve ever had.”

After a year of increasingly heavy and disruptive drug use, in March 2016, Alison’s boss, Lindsay Dembowski, was notified that Alison was stealing narcotics from the hospital—sufentanil, which is 5 to 10 times stronger than fentanyl.

She could hardly believe it. "I thought, There is absolutely no way," Dembowski told Marie Claire. "Of all the people—Alison was my best doctor—she would have been the last one on my list of suspects."

Dembowski confronted Alison, and they embarked on a two-hour drive to a treatment center in Atlanta.

Alison was taken to Talbott Recovery, established in 1989 by George Talbott, an internist with alcohol use disorder who created the first treatment program specifically for doctors like himself. Dr. Talbott wanted to not only help physicians, but also help them get their jobs back.

Alison was at Talbott for 90 days of rigorous treatment.

Opioids are the second most frequently abused substance among physicians, after alcohol. So many at Talbott were also physicians experiencing opioid addiction.

Once home, Alison signed a five-year monitoring agreement with Georgia’s physician health program (PHP). A PHP allows physicians in recovery to continue to practice medicine as long as they maintain their sobriety, and agree to drug tests and support group meetings. If they do not comply or other negative events occur, the PHP may need to report the doctor to the medical board.

In the U.S., every state has a PHP except for California, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. 

The Journal of Substance Abuse published a national study in 2009 which found that of 904 physicians enrolled in 16 state PHP programs, 78% had no positive test for either drugs or alcohol during the five years of intensive monitoring, and 72% continued practicing medicine.

Alison and her second husband divorced, but she remains clean and sober and working as an anesthesiologist in a new hospital 30 minutes from her home. 

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Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2014) and the recently completed novel, Agitate My Heart. She is a freelance writer published in Rolling Stone, VOX, Washington Post, The Guardian and many others. Find her at her blog Flux Capacitor or on LinkedIn or Twitter.