Dr. Barry Hardison was practicing medicine in Central City, KY when he became addicted to opiates. In recovery he runs “A New Start” treatment center. Alton Strupp, Louisville Courier Journal
A Way Forward: The Courier Journal has been at the forefront of exposing Kentucky’s pervasive and changing addiction epidemic, which in many ways is worse than in other parts of the country. Now, as we continue to dive into the human toll, we’re looking at the most effective ways to curb the problem. Find out more at courierjournal.com/awayforward.
Gathered around a conference room table with several of his patients, Dr. Barry Hardison made a bold admission: “Hi. I’m Barry. And I’m an addict.”
“It’s been a very stressful couple of weeks,” Hardison told the group.
“If I wasn’t here, I’d feel the need to use.”
In his office down the hall, Hardison is known as “Doc” to the dozens of Western Kentucky men and women he treats for addiction. But in the conference room, he is simply “Barry,” just one of several people who gather weekly to share hardships and encouragement at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.
Hardison’s predicament isn’t rare. Other doctors struggle with addiction, but most suffer and recover in the shadows.
Hardison, certain he was on the path to death, did something years ago thatfew do. He reported his own addiction to state medical board officials — the ones who could end his career.
Most doctors are prodded into treatment after a coworker raises concerns or police arrest them for impaired driving, said Dr. Greg L. Jones, medical director for the Kentucky Physicians Health Foundation, which has referred more than 2,000 doctors to addiction and mental health treatment since its inception in 1976.
“Almost no one self-reports,” Jones said. “They’re afraid, there’s the stigma, the ramifications.”
Nationally, at least 10 percent of doctors — about the same percentage as other Americans — will develop an addictive disorder, and “approximately one-third of physicians will have a condition that could impact their ability to practice with reasonable skill and safety,” according to the Federation of State Physician Health Programs, which includes Kentucky’s program that links doctors to treatment.
Hardison, who is 60 and has been sober nearly 25 years, speaks out to help destigmatize the brain disease and spread his message of hope.
In the support group meetingsat his Muhlenberg County treatment center, what Hardison has to say isn’t scientific. It’s personal.
And in his office, he tears up with those who stumble, and laughs and cheers on those who meet milestones in their recovery.
“I can’t wait to get here. Who can I help next?”
‘I was gonna die’
Hardison’senthusiasm treating patients with addictions is a stark contrast to the hidden torment he experienced during his years as an internist.
His first day in private practice should have been celebratory.
It was 1987 and he was a 28-year-old returning home to Muhlenberg County’s rural countryside from Louisville to care for ailing neighbors, friends and relatives.
Instead, it was anguishing.
“I was afraid I would make mistakes with my patients,” he said of self-doubt entrenched in his youth. “I was afraid they would not think I was smart.”
Hardison would wipe his sweat-soaked palms on his slacks and take deep breaths to slow his racing heartbeat.
“I was afraid they were going to see my fear, see my panic, see my insecurities and never come back,” Hardison said.
In reality, his patients were glad to see a familiar face. He was the son of a local coal miner and teacher who made it big, graduating from the University of Louisville School of Medicine to become a respected physician.
Still, the doctor dreaded each work day. Tomorrow, they might spot his vulnerabilities, he fretted. And maybe they would ask a question he couldn’t answer.
“I fell apart,” he said.
Each evening, he was relieved to shed his starched white coat, like a bashful kid removing a superhero costume that briefly projected a fictional boldness and strength.
This agony went on for years, even though Hardison had earned a reputation as a knowledgeable internal medicine specialist who treated patients with heart and lung diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes and other ailments.
About a year after becoming an internist, Hardison developed a high fever and severe aches from the flu. A doctor prescribed Lortab, a popular and potentially addictive opioid that was then considered a harmless and effective pain killer.
In an instant, Hardison’s pain dissipated. So did his fears and anxieties.
“I had never felt that normal,” he said.
Even after his flu symptoms faded, the doctor kept taking a couple of pills on the weekends for a reprieve from the pressures of work.
Eventually, Hardison’s weekend habit swelled to two or three pills a day to quell his insecurities. He became addicted, needing moreand more just to avoid being sick.
Eventually, Hardison popped 30 to 40 pills just to get through the day.
He hid his drug use for six years, even from his family and fellow physicians he saw daily.
But he could feel a crisis point nearing. He knew his escalating dosage could be fatal. He decided to risk it all — his reputation, relationships and a thriving internal medicine practice — to end the secrecy and report his drug use to Kentucky medical board officials in 1993.
“I was scared I’d lose my license,” he said. “But I was gonna die.”
He was referred to the Hazelden center in Minnesota, which later merged with the Betty Ford Center.
Suboxone — a medication Hardison prescribes for many of his patients to ease painful withdrawals and lessen cravings — wasn’t an option then. So he detoxed the hard way.
“It was about seven days of hell on this earth,” he said of sleepless nights due to diarrhea, vomiting, sweating, trembling and severe leg cramps.
After a month of in-patient treatment, he went back to work.
He knew if he relapsed and his commitment to recovery waned, the board could suspend his medical license.
“They help you and guide you, but you’re under their rule,” Hardison said.
Medical board officials watched him for five years, ordering random drug screenings.
He went to five NA and group support meetings a week. One meeting, mandated by the board, brought together five addicted doctors.
Drugs allowed him to feel distant from his fears. In recovery, he would have to confront them.
At age 5, Hardison’s father told him he must become a doctor.
“There was never a choice,” said Hardison, the oldest of two children.
His father, an oil well laborer and coal miner who dropped out of high school, had a penchant for reading but didn’t have money for college. He wanted a different fate for his son.
But his vision of his son’s success came with scarring criticism: “You may not be as smart as others in your class, but if you work harder, you can accomplish this.”
That year, Hardison,akindergartner, had his first panic attack.
Throughout his life, he longed for his father’s approval, seemingly held just out of reach.
“I didn’t want anyone mad at me,” the doctor said. “I wanted to please him.”
Hardison said he remembers the one time in high school he got a C on a midterm. His mother, an eighth-grade English teacher, cried.
“I never made another C,” he said. “Accomplishment was everything to them.”
When he was 6, his father discovered that he had unwittingly overfed the pigs on their property. “He went into a rage and whipped me extremely with a tree branch,” Hardison said. “It was devastating. I felt scared and crushed lots of times.”
He reasons that his parents, who have since died, loved him but didn’t know how to express it. They bought him a car and paid for his college education so he could focus on his courses, but what he needed most was affirmation.
“He was always looking for that pat on the head,” the doctor’s ex-wife, Debra Hardison, said of the man she was married to for 27 years.
“No matter what he did, it was never good enough. His father would never say, ‘Son, you did a great job. I’m so proud of you.’ “
Not even at Hardison’s medical school graduation.
Hardison completed his residency at University of Louisville Hospital, where Debra — a coronary care nurse from his hometown — was drawn to his rapport with patients, his intellect and humor.
The couple married in 1984 in Louisville. Here, Barry Hardison began his life as a husband and doctor — giving his self-image a needed boost.
But their happy life in the city was about to end.
Hardison said his father always expected him to practice medicine near his hometown. The doctor acquiesced, though he knew living so close to home and his family’s influence was akin to swimming in an undertow.
Back home in Central City, the doctor caved to criticism and pressure.
“I would watch him just shrink,” his ex-wife said. “He felt like he was so trapped.”
Weekend binge drinking morphed into Lortabs — hydrocodone mixed with acetaminophen to treat moderate-to-severe pain.
“Things could have gone so differently if we had stayed in Louisville,” his ex-wife said.
‘You’re gonna get your life back’
In Central City — the halfway point between Louisville and Nashville where folks gather each year for a rib cookout and Gospel Fest — Hardison worried that word of his drug abuse would easily spread and cripple his career.
“In our little town, there’s gossip,” he said.
“After a month and people didn’t leave and told me how proud they were, I knew they loved and forgave me.”
After several years juggling his own recovery and internal medicine, Hardison decided to make a big change. He would take what he learned from his struggles and help others who are addicted, focusing on healthier stress relievers. For Hardison, that includes lifting weights, attending church and group meetings.
Hardison started seeing patients once a week in his Central City addiction treatment clinic A New Start in 2012, while working other days as an internist at a nearby medical center.
When he approached Dr. Kelly Vincent with the idea of joining his addiction-treatment team, Vincent prayed a lot and discussed it with his wife.
“I was leery,” said Vincent, a family medicine physician who didn’t know much about Suboxone.
He had worked with Hardison, the internist, more than a decade at a medical center in nearby Powderly, Kentucky, and then in Central City. So he had faith in his friend’s recovery. But this business venture was different — a doctor in recovery using narcotics to treat addiction.
Vincent and a group of about 10 fellow physicians met with Hardison to assess his stability and learn more about Suboxone.
“I know the passion and love that he has for patients who suffer from this terrible disease,” Vincent said. “I know his heart.”
Vincent also had seen his county “absolutely torn apart by drugs” and knew that general practitioners and licensed practical nurses were needed on the front lines.
He agreed to join Hardison. The two have now shared office space and a common mission for about six years. In May, Hardison switched to solely treating addiction, trading his white internist’s coat for a black polo and black jeans.
New patient Robert Alshire, a 47-year-old coal miner, said he thought he would just stroll into the clinic and quickly get a prescription from Dr. Hardison, as he has at other clinics. He didn’t expect to talk, revealing some of his regrets.
“Lortabs were my thing,” he told Hardison.
“Mine too, buddy,” the doctor said. “You’re gonna get your life back … You’re gonna do great.”
Hardison regularly upliftshis patients with the encouragement and praise he craved — and they give it back to him.
A patient brought him a red rose to celebrate her one-month anniversary free of meth.
“I’m proud of ya,” Hardison told her as the two embraced.
Another woman who called herself one of the county’s biggest junkies for 40 years finally worked up the nerve to walk into the clinic.
“I’m glad you’re here!” Hardison told her, spreading out his arms to offer a hug. The two sobbed.
There was no judgment. Just hope.
Several professions have their own programs linking employees to confidential treatment programs. For doctors, it’s the Kentucky Physicians Health Foundation at kyrecovery.org.
Others who need help can go to www.findhelpnowky.org.
BY THE NUMBERS:
6 — Number of years Western Kentucky Dr. Barry Hardison hid his addiction while treating patients as an internist.
5 — Number of years the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure monitors physicians and other healthcare professionals with random drug screens and mandatory peer support meetings.
24 — Number of years Dr. Hardison has been in recovery.
70-90 — Recovery rates for physicians across the nation who are treated and monitored through physician health programs.
500+ — Number of patients Dr. Barry Hardison has treated for addiction.
30-35 — Estimated number of Kentucky healthcare professionals annually needing formal addiction treatment.
120 — Approximate number of healthcare professionals across Kentucky who are currently being monitoring.
2,000 — Estimated number of healthcare professions referred to treatment for addiction and mental or emotional illness by the Kentucky Physicians Health Foundation since its inception in 1976.
There’s a lot of doctors who have been through this. Their story should be told; EVERY addict in solid recovery should share their story, recovery is a gas!