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Drug abuse poisons veterinary profession

Article

Cleveland-Dr. Jeff Hall's sobriety is 15 years old. Yet the 49-year-old vividly recalls the day that began his life as a drug addict and eventually ended his career as a practitioner.

Cleveland-Dr. Jeff Hall's sobriety is 15 years old.

Yet the 49-year-old vividly recalls the day that began his life as adrug addict and eventually ended his career as a practitioner.

"I was performing surgery on a horse, got injured, crawled to thecar and gave myself a shot of Demerol," he says. "Then I wrappedmy knee up, went back to finish the surgery and went to the emergency room."

For non-drug users, narcotic pain relievers aren't so menacing. But forHall, with a history of college drug use, it was the point when he regularlystarted to "self medicate" on the job.

"It wasn't just Demerol. I would control my physical addiction,in part, by switching drugs," he says. "It's pretty simple tocome up with the drugs if you have a MD or DVM after your name.

"But at the end of my addiction years, booze is what brought meto my knees. It almost killed me."

Hall is not alone. Now head of the American Veterinary Medical Association'sCommittee on Wellness, he estimates 11 to 13 percent of all veterinariansare substance abusers - a couple points higher than the National Instituteon Drug Abuse's estimates for all medical professionals.

And Dale Fullerton, a commissioned Oklahoma police officer says he'shell-bent on catching them.

Covert operation

"Our narcotics division cases are on overload, and it's usuallyabout hydrocodone," says Fullerton, who works undercover for the stateboard of veterinary medical examiners, "It's the most abused legaldrug there is. I have 22 cases right now that I'm investigating, and it'sjust me. I'm a one-man gang."

As a result, five veterinarians in Oklahoma have either lost their licensesor had them suspended due to drug use in the past two years.

On the national front, Fullerton says the problem goes largely untouched,as he's unaware of any other investigators sharing his job description.State agencies such as the New York health department's Bureau of ControlledSubstances, an arm of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), investigatedrug-related incidents, but almost none give the attention Fullerton claimsthe problem deserves.

"We investigate possible activity," bureau spokeswoman ClairePospisil says, "but we haven't really found too many cases."

Agencies from Kentucky, South Carolina, New Jersey and Alabama offersimilar sentiments.

Bottomed out

But that's not because cases don't exist, Fullerton insists. In fact,the New York bureau is the same agency that busted Hall in the 1980s.

"I had stopped doing surgeries because I thought I'd hurt an animal,"Hall says. "But in 1983, my life left me. I had a foal die while workingat Cornell and the following Monday morning I was leaving my divorce attorneywhen I hit an 18-year-old boy on a moped on my way back to practice. I wasn'twasted, but I wasn't paying attention, either."

The teenager was uninjured. About a year later, the bureau investigated.

"I think the last straw was when I had treated an emergency whiledrunk and the sutures came out," he says. "It is very simple toget drugs and falsify records when you're a veterinarian, and by then, Iwas really messed up."

Brushed under the rug

DEA officials refuse to discuss their cases on DVM drug addiction, asdo many of their branch offices. They won't even confirm that cases exist.

In part, that's because drug abuse is a "shame-based disease,"Hall says, adding drug addicts must first come forward "to get theiract together."

After all - he did.

"When the DEA got to me, they pointed out that I used 16,000 Tylenolwith codeine over eight years, and the majority of those I ate myself, taking10 to 16 at a time," he says. "My license was suspended. I lostmy practice. I lost my money. That's the price I paid for my addiction.

"I'm pretty lucky I still have a liver."

Still, this self-described compulsive veterinarian got back on track.Now remarried, working for a medical device company, the AVMA and counselingveterinarians, Hall doesn't have a lot of free time. The cravings have subsided,but he still won't apply for a DEA license. Once in awhile, he attends anAlcoholics Anonymous meeting "to remember."

"It takes me back," he says. "It reminds me where I'vebeen. You know, my life's been pretty remarkable since I came clean. Career-wise,I've done more than I ever dreamed."

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