“Blessings for all you do.” “You Rock!” Created by local youth, the signs served as little testaments of gratitude toward our local medical community working the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. As an impaired physician four years into my recovery from alcohol, I felt gratitude that I would not have recognized during my active drinking years.
On November 3, 2016, I overdosed on alcohol and valium and was transported into the very emergency department (ED) where I had been practicing for 20 years. I was ultimately transferred to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility. After 9 months of mandated unemployment, I was approved for work in an urgent care clinic. After another year, the monitoring program granted me return to the practice of emergency medicine. After another 12 months, the ED director offered me my job back. I was interrogated by my hospital’s wellness panel, scrutinized by the credentialing committees, and ultimately approved by the medical executive board. I am now 2 years back working as a full-time emergency physician.
It was only through willingness to be vulnerable and divulge my situation to the world that I was able to successfully recover and return to the profession I love. My rehabilitation was only possible with an enormous degree of outside support. Sadly, the stigma of alcoholism and addiction in the medical community is alive and well. Credentialing bodies and state licensing authorities uniquely single out alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness on their hospital privilege application questionnaires, making it more expedient for impaired practitioners to hide their illness at the expense of their own health, their families, and the patients they serve.
When the COVID-19 pandemic blindsided nurses and doctors, we did a gut-check and handled with poise whatever came our way. Those of us in long-term recovery, I believe, have been able to successfully cope with this event from an emotional standpoint because of, rather than in spite of, our disease. So, why does the medical community regard us with such suspicion? Until this gargantuan issue is addressed, more of our own will lose their careers and lives out of fear of “coming out” in front of the medical establishment.
When I see children’s homemade signs rooting us on, I can’t help but fancy that they are referring to not only the fight against some virus, but also the unspoken, ongoing secondary plague of our time: alcoholism and drug addiction secretly ravaging the medical community. To the children, I am grateful. Out of the mouths of babes.
Dr. JD Remy is a practicing emergency physician and author of the book Ballad of a Sober Man: An ER Doctor’s Journey of Recovery, on sale at Amazon.com.