Doctor Keith says he realized he was in big trouble when DEA agents started visiting his friends and colleagues and asking questions. Doctor Keith: “I just knew the game was over and I just thought, you know what, I did these things and I’m going to end up going to prison for them and this is where my addiction has taken me.”
Doctor Keith didn’t go to prison. Instead he cooperated with prosecutors, pled guilty and got a suspended sentence. Now he’s required to attend a 12-step program and submit to regular drug tests. But he says his life is in ruins. Doctor Keith: “I’ve lost my house, I’ve lost my bank account, my pension plan, I lost my business, I lost my license, I lost my wife.”
The Washington Physicians Health Program estimates — like the general population — ten to fifteen percent of doctors will battle addiction sometime in their career. Most to alcohol. But increasingly the drugs of choice are ones doctors can easily get their hands on: hydrocodone and oxycodone — powerful painkillers that can give the user a euphoric high.
Doctor Keith says at first he took the drugs for back pain. But soon they became a magic pill that helped him function as a busy doctor and a father. Doctor Keith: “I took ‘em when I would have my son on a weekend because I needed more energy and I wanted to be in a better mood when he was around. I wanted to be active and I wanted to be pleasant. And that sounds like well that’s not a problem to do that. Well that does become a problem.”
Doctor Keith’s addiction got him in trouble with medical license boards in Maryland, Arizona, and Washington. But it wasn’t until the feds stepped in earlier this year that the consequences got really serious. Ron Friedman is an assistant U.S. Attorney who has prosecuted several Washington physicians in recent months – including Doctor Keith. Ron Friedman: “Doctors when they go to medical school and graduate and become a different breed. And an extremely valuable breed in our society. But unfortunately sometimes they get hooked on the same drugs and have the same sort of problems that the general population has.”
As for Doctor Keith, he hopes that someday he will be able to practice again. Doctor Keith: “There are other things that are higher priority for me now. But of course, I mean I went to medical school and residency and fellowship and trained and practiced and that’s who I am so I would be surprised to hear any other answer from a physician to be honest with you.”
For now, Doctor Keith is focusing on staying clean and sober and following the terms of his probation. If he slips up, he knows there’s a federal prison cell waiting for him.