His addiction—and refusal to recognize it—is a familiar tragedy to Dr. Roland Herrington, 57. For one thing, Herrington is a former alcoholic and drug addict himself. Today he runs a program at De Paul Rehabilitation Hospital in Milwaukee that specializes in treating "impaired physicians," as they are known in the profession. "Until very recently," Herrington says, "the whole problem was covered up." He estimates that 15 percent (or some 57,000) of America's doctors suffer from drug or alcohol addiction and sometimes both. "If doctors don't have strong scruples about taking drugs," he explains, "they are very apt to use amphetamines to keep going and barbiturates to put themselves to sleep. It reflects the attitude of getting instant relief from pain and tension by chemical means." (Doctors' wives and families also have an addiction rate that is higher than average.)
Patients are often referred to Herrington by the State Medical Society of Wisconsin. It is one of 38 state societies that have committees to help doctors with addiction or emotional problems. Herrington now has 22 physicians in his two-year rehabilitation program. "You have to be pretty confrontative," he explains. To make sure his patients aren't sneaking pills or liquor, he subjects them to frequent urine and blood tests. "A permissive atmosphere is the worst place for alcoholics and drug addicts."
His doctors spend from four to eight weeks in the hospital, mixed with addicted teenagers, housewives and businessmen. "It deflates their egos a bit," says Herrington. "A doctor has to find out he is just another human."
The first task is detoxification. With alcoholics, this takes three to five days. Drug addicts require up to a month. "Then," says Herrington, "you are left with the real problems." Sixteen weeks of post-hospital therapy include periodic checkups and counseling with families. Patients must join either Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous or both. "I figure if the doctors do all these things," Herrington says, "90 percent will be well in three years."
Herrington himself first cracked about 10 years ago. Under the pressure of his job as a general surgeon in Milwaukee he became "a full-blown alcoholic." ("I drank vodka because I thought it didn't smell," he says. "But it smells like hell. Since I sobered up, I can smell a vodka drinker a block away.")
"I had acute renal failure, shock, kidney dialysis," Herrington remembers. "My kidneys came back, but I left the hospital dependent on Talwin." It's a painkiller then falsely thought to be nonaddictive.
Successfully treated at the Hazelden Foundation in Center City, Minn., he got interested in doctor addiction and started his own private treatment center. "It took a lot of money, which I lost in the deal," he says. "I relapsed, became addicted to drugs and had to go back for more treatment. Fortunately, it was a brief relapse."
Son of a Bloomington, Ill. bank official and an alumnus of Illinois Wesleyan and the Marquette University medical school, Herrington took his surgical internship at Columbia Presbyterian, where he met his wife, B (for Beulah), a nurse. She admits their 30 married years have been trying but adds: "I knew he was a good man."
His patients learn to trust him, too. "It would be impossible for me to be where I am without him," says the young gynecologist, now recovering. "He is the only one I know that I have that kind of respect, love and admiration for. He is also a taskmaster, and sometimes a pain in the ass."
It is a pain Herrington willingly inflicts. "You have to care enough about a patient to care what he does," he says. "I give them lots of tough love."
I lost absolutely everything: my wife, my family, my home, my three Ferraris, my self-respect and my license to practice medicine," the 33-year-old Wisconsin gynecologist says of his drug addiction. After medical school he began treating his headaches with Percodan. Within two years he was taking 400 of the pills a day, a habit that forced him to fly from state to state in search of new supplies of the drug. Finally he was arrested, and "as they handcuffed me," he says, "I thought, 'Why are they doing this? I don't really have a problem.' "