Help me help doctors in recovery


Approximately 12 years ago, I hired my first physician in recovery. He had temporarily lost his license following a bout with alcohol. After a stint in a rehabilitation clinic, he was ultimately reinstated. My journey to hire this physician was arduous at best. During the interviewing process, I narrowed the field down to two candidates: one with a past and one without. I wrestled with the “in recovery” situation and made it a concern of great magnitude. I became so focused on how this would look for my group, as well as the bind I would personally be in if he relapsed. I was so conflicted. My gut told me to hire this physician with the checkered past. Removing that component from the equation, I noted he really clicked with my organization. Inquiries revealed that the patients and staff at his previous hospital adored him and were sad that he was no longer able to work at their facility.

After many sleepless nights, I caved into my concerns. I did not hire him. I could not do it. I cowardly worried what others would think. What a mistake! I hired the other candidate who I did not like. He looked very good on paper, and I had convinced myself that his hiring would cause fewer waves in my organization. It did not take long to realize that this new physician was a terrible fit. I cut him loose and immediately called the recovering physician. I explained why I did not hire him in the first place. When we met again, he looked me squarely in the eye and said, “I will never let you down.” I hired him on the spot, and he works in my group to this day. Unequivocally, this physician does a wonderful job. I have no regrets!

That experience convinced me to give a break to other doctors in the recovery program, which now includes two orthopedic surgeons, one Physical Medicine doctor and a very well published anesthesiologist. All of these doctors have been well received equally by patients and staff. They are practicing outstanding medicine and are paid no less than my other physicians. Giving these talented doctors a second chance was the right thing to do. We have all made mistakes — some more serious than others — but for there but for the grace of God.

What most people do not realize is that these doctors in recovery are randomly tested for drugs and alcohol on a monthly basis. This is mandated by the physician recovery system in our state. What other medical group can say with certainty that a subset of their doctors is absolutely not using drugs or alcohol?

Upon speaking with a large number of recovering physicians, I discovered that their largest impediment in becoming gainfully employed is staring back at them in the mirror. They are their own worst enemies. They have lost a great deal of confidence and self-esteem. Many feel like “no one would want us.” These once vibrant, dedicated and self- assured professionals often become depressed and insecure. This is understandable — they have been through hell and back and need someone to say, “It’s going to be OK.” They really think everyone is talking behind their backs and many times they do not want to leave their homes.

What I tell the docs is this — you are not that important, and none of us are talking about you. We have our own lives/families to deal with. This always gets a chuckle from the docs and helps them see the bigger picture: other people are probably giving little to no thought about what they have been through.

I have helped at least ten other doctors find jobs, including an OB/GYN who was working at Starbucks when he called. One of my greatest joys in medicine occurred when I got a call from a young neurosurgery resident who lost his position after the first year because of a DWI. He was teaching a Stanley Kaplan course and was considering giving up. Instead, he made a life changing call. Through what I feel was divine intervention, I was directed to a neurosurgery program that was looking for a PGY1. I immediately called this young man, and he got on the first flight out. He was hired immediately and is now a practicing neurosurgeon.

I am thoroughly convinced that this appreciative doctor will play it forward for the rest of his life.

Stephen F. Chambers is an internal medicine physician.

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