Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A sobering story...

I just read Dr. John Neisser's sad story on Huffington Post.  His story, part tale of woe, part warning tale, is about how he is now pretty much unemployable because he abused drugs.

During his residency, Dr. Neisser suffered from clinical depression.  At the same time, he developed a medical problem that required painkillers.  He was prescribed opiates, which he later ended up abusing.  Realizing that he had developed a drug problem, Dr. Neisser writes that he self-referred to his state's impaired physician program.  He was sent to rehab for three months, during which time he was fired by his residency program.  From there, his career went straight into the toilet.  Even shifting to a program that would not have him working directly with patients turned out to be impossible.

Now he's 36 years old, lives with his parents, and is facing a somewhat bleak future.  Given his history with depression and drug abuse, I wouldn't be surprised if he eventually became despondent.  It takes a lot to get into medical school... brains, money, stamina, drive... and the people who make it are usually high achievers.  I'm thinking a guy like John Neisser, now burdened by massive student loans and unable to get work in his field, must be feeling pretty desperate about the rest of his life.

This is a topic that hits home for me.  When I was earning my MSW, I spent a semester working at South Carolina's Recovering Professional Program.  Ultimately, I switched internships because my field instructor wasn't giving me enough material to write the large paper I needed to complete my MPH.  My second social work internship was also my public health residency and I needed to be able to write about it and do a presentation at the end of the year.  I ended up moving my internship to Prevent Child Abuse South Carolina's Health Families program, which gave me more to write about, though the work wasn't as personally interesting to me.

One thing I did learn while working at RPP is that impaired physician's programs (which also serve nurses, pharmacists, and other health professionals with addiction problems) are supposed to prevent people from losing their careers.  That is their whole purpose for being.  When I was at RPP, the emphasis was actually more on rehab for nurses, since there was a severe nursing shortage at that time and nurses have somewhat less to lose than impaired doctors do.  It doesn't cost as much to become a nurse, so they may not be as willing to seek help for addiction as a physician might.  Because nurses were really needed (and probably still are), RPP sought to rehabilitate them and get them back to work.

I just did a quick Google check and see that in 2005, Dr. Neisser graduated from Eastern Virginia Medical School.  I am familiar with that school because when I was a senior in high school taking advanced biology, my class took a field trip to EVMS.  I remember touring the school and visiting the cadaver lab, where an anatomy professor showed us the embalmed corpses of two elderly women.  As he casually handled the small intestine that had recently been in one of the cadavers, one of my classmates fainted.  She said the woman reminded her of her grandmother.  Remembering that experience reminds me that medical school is not for the faint of heart or the light of pocketbook.

I understand that drug abuse is not a good thing, especially in a professional where good judgment is paramount.  I also understand that what I'm reading from Dr. Neisser is strictly his side of the situation.  Part of the rehab program for medical professionals involves monitoring for some time.  That means regular unannounced urine testing.  He explains that somehow his monitoring was violated.  I take that to mean that he missed a test or maybe failed one.  I don't know because he doesn't explain.  But that was apparently the kiss of death for Neisser, who then tried to get a PhD.  He lasted a year before he had to leave his PhD program due to his name coming up in a database from the U.S. Department of Health.  It appears that Dr. Neisser may now be an adjunct biology professor at Germanna Community College.  While that sounds somewhat respectable, adjunct professors don't tend to make much money.  And I bet he's having trouble paying back his student loans, and that isn't good for society, either.

I hate to think that peoples' lives can be permanently ruined for things like this.  Situations like Dr. Neisser's can drive good people to do desperate things.  I think there should be more reason and balance applied to situations like John Neisser's.  It's not a good thing when someone makes a mistake and can't recover.  Yes, it's prudent to hold medical professionals to high ethical standards so they don't hurt people.  However, medical professionals are humans and they make mistakes.  And humans need to be able to make a living and be able to recover from their mistakes.  Otherwise, why go on living?

John Neisser must have some redeeming qualities, otherwise he wouldn't have gotten into medical school or a PhD program.  There must be something he can do to pull himself out of this mess.  He needs a chance, just like so many people do... including people who perhaps haven't used drugs but find themselves in a similarly seemingly hopeless situation.  I wish more people could see the big picture.  Zero tolerance policies are not good for society; they can ruin lives and have ripple effects that extend far beyond those who are supposedly being disciplined.  I truly hope John Neisser and others in his situation can recover.        


  1. I remember hearing a conversation when I was in high school between my dad and my uncle, both of whom were medical doctors. They agreed that if either they or one of their kids who might want to go into medicine had an issue with prescription meds, they would use the private sector -- one of the pricy rehab places-- and not let it be on the record that it was a drug problem. I distinctly remember my dad saying that he would support us in term of a continued medical career through two screw-ups, but if that we had more relapses then that, he would steer us away from the allied health field and into something where a past drug issue wasn't quite such a deal breaker. I distinctly remember going to Matthew and telling him that he only had two chances with drugs and that after that, he would have to find a career that wasn't connected with health. At the time it didn't seem to apply to me, as I was still planning to study law.
    at this point, fortunately neither Matthew nor I has an issue with drugs, although Matthew may have inherited a little bit of Dad's love for booze. i don't think alcohol will ever be quite as big a deal to Matt as it was to dad, though, because for Matt booze wasn't quite the forbidden fruit that it was for my dad with his LDS upbringing. My parents accepted that we would drink at some point and preached no drunk driving, not to drink in situations where it left us (particularly me) especially vulnerable, and to drink in moderation in order to avoid alcohol poisoning.

    As long as I made it through medical school and first year of residency, I would presumably be able to work in medical research no matter what happened to me in terms even of drug convictions. since I wouldn't necessarily be practicing medicine per se, I could do my job even if I had a suspended license, although that's no causing me to think I should become a drug abuser. Matthew needs to be more carefu, as I'm not sure he's quite smart enough to work in medical research, and it would furthermore be a waste of his good looks and charm to do so.

    1. I think the guy who wrote that piece was hoping to go into research, but ended up not being able to.

      Anyway, I know a little how he feels, to put all that time, money, and effort into a professional course and end up where he is. But then, I have come to be somewhat happy with how things are. For now, anyway.


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