My Mother’s Surgery And One Doctor’s Substance Abuse

By Karen Shiffman
Guest contributor

USA Today reports more than 100,000 doctors, nurses, technicians and other health professionals struggle with abuse or addiction. This wasn’t news to my family.

Some 20 years ago, my mother was mauled by a dog. She was on vacation in Florida and went over to a friend’s house for dinner. To understand what happened next, you need to know a few crucial facts about her: She is afraid of dogs and barely five feet tall. When her friend opened the front door, her daughter’s dog — an Akita- tore out of the house and lunged . My mother turned away quickly. The dog lunged again. Because of her short stature, his teeth sunk into her calf. He all but ripped it off.

(Alex E. Proimos/flickr)

(Alex E. Proimos/flickr)

Blood everywhere. Screams. Tears. Ambulance. Thirty-nine stitches at the ER. She would need a skin graft.

And then there was the drama with the friend. Turns out, this wasn’t the first time the dog had bitten someone. Still, the family didn’t want the dog put down. Eventually, he was. My mother and her friend of 30 years never spoke again.

Back home in Boston, my mother was referred to a plastic surgeon at what is now Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He was kind and I agreed with my mother that he should do the surgery.

The operation went well. I went with her to the post-surgery checkup. We both thanked the surgeon for doing such a great job and for taking such good care of my mother.

So, imagine my shock, in 2008, to read in The Boston Globe that my mother’s surgeon was fired for being impaired in the OR. And that he had been struggling with substance abuse for the past six years.

I was angry. Compassion wasn’t in my wheelhouse at that moment. Did the fact that her surgery was successful mean I didn’t have the right to be angry? To wonder why he had been allowed to operate?

All these years later, I’m still not sure.

A quick online search reveals that this doctor now runs a medical consulting business. Is this really good medicine?

Readers, have you even been treated by a doctor with a drug problem? How did you learn about it? Please share your story.

Karen Shiffman is an executive producer at WBUR

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  • DrJaneFromJP

    You state that the injury was 20 years ago, and presumably the surgery also happened around that time, which was 14 years before the surgeon was fired for behavior in the OR and presumably 8 years before the surgeon “struggled with substance abuse issues”. It is entirely possible that this was a superb surgeon who did not know how to handle stress to the point that he turned to substances to deal with it, and then the substances became problematic to the point that he stopped functioning at work. It is likely that this occurred well after he took care of your mother. It doesn’t negate the excellent work that he did on your mother, nor potential talent that he may have with regard to medical consulting.

    The question is why are you angry? The anger at the “friend” who didn’t control a dog that was known to be dangerous should not be conflated with the anger at a surgeon who caused you and your mother no harm. Why aren’t you sad that this terrific surgeon isn’t currently practicing his craft or that the suffering that he may have experienced due to lack of appropriate treatment for a brain disease (addiction)? We don’t know if patients were harmed as a result of his behavior, but it is a real shame if that has happened.

    Is the anger at a system that you imagined would protect you? Or that someone could have stopped it earlier? Addiction is a brain disease, and one that is difficult to recognize except by those closest to the person with the problem, and even then, it may not be clear. If we had a culture in which the OR behavior could have been addressed early on in the pattern, then perhaps the addiction could have been caught earlier on, and would not have resulted in the devastating consequences for this physician and the hospital. Team work, and open acknowledge of the humanity of our caregivers is an essential part of a solution to prevent problems such as occurred here.

    There are terrific resources for impaired physicians, such as Physicians Health Services (PHS), a non-profit organization in Waltham, MA that works with impaired physicians to help them get help for mental illness, substance abuse and behavioral issues. It also holds them accountable if their behavior is serious enough to warrant potential removal of licensure. Professional coaching is another option to help physicians treat and prevent burn-out. A number of coaches work specifically with physicians, and can be recommended by PHS.