30 Years of Change Campaign

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Mitchell West, DOMy 30 years with the PHP

I can vividly recall the abject terror I felt in 1987 when I received a telephone call from Rocky McDermott, the medical director of what was then called the Pennsylvania Impaired Physicians Program. How did he find out about me, I wondered, and what was he going to make me do? I was so afraid to speak to him that I made my wife take his call. And so began my 30-year relationship with the PHP.

So, I went to treatment, signed a contract, entered a recovering physician’s group and submitted to weekly urine drug screens all for the purpose of maintaining my medical license. For much of the next 15 years, I tried, mostly in vain, to convince the PHP that I was doing well and was in stable recovery. In truth, my addiction to opioids was so severe that I could not put together even two days of sustained abstinence. The machinations I resorted to in order to maintain the guise of recovery were astonishing and over time, entirely futile. The consequences I experienced are familiar to most people with addictions and included a felony conviction for self-prescribing, a period of incarceration, progressively longer intervals of unemployment, financial hardship and ultimately the loss of my medical license. Through it all, I maintained a “relationship” with the PHP but needless to say, it was not characterized by a high level of trust. Unfortunately, I was unable, and no doubt unwilling, to grasp the essentials of a program of recovery. In 2003, my medical license was indefinitely suspended and my relationship with the PHP was terminated.

I had no idea what to do. I was so depressed that I saw a psychiatrist and began treatment for a mood disorder. I enrolled in graduate school in an attempt to find a new career but the stigma of being a physician without a license was so great that I had trouble finding gainful employment. I reconnected with my previous therapist and re-entered his recovering physician group and I went to Caduceus meetings. I leaned on my wife and family and friends for support and over time I began to change and recover. There was no epiphany or moment of clarity and to this day, I don’t fully understand how or why this happened but I am glad it did.

In 2013, the PHP was finally comfortable with my progress and offered me my fourth contract with them. Dr. Shapiro advocated for me at my hearing for re-licensure and my medical license was restored after a 10-year suspension. Today, I am working as an emergency physician for my previous employer. I also work for a drug and alcohol treatment center. In 2014, I was part of U.S. Attorney David Hickton’s Overdose Prevention Project and helped write the Overdose Prevention Guidelines. In November 2014, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy recognized me for the contribution I made to the project.

Sometimes I think I might have been the worst physician the PHP had to deal with over the past 30 years and after everything that transpired, I am grateful that they and the other important people in my life stuck with me. I would not be where I am today if not for all of them.