By Brandon Gage
Dr. Faye Jamali was a successful anesthesiologist in the San Francisco, California metropolitan area. She reached out to Chosen to share her story and unique perspective about the ongoing opioid epidemic, both as a former doctor and recovering addict.
Dr. Jamali’s story:
“I was an anesthesiologist, no problems with addiction until I was prescribed pain pills for a broken wrist in 2007. We were told to treat pain aggressively with Vicodin. I slowly started taking them to relax. I’m not a drinker, but this pill did it for me. ‘It’s fine, I’m a doctor,’ I would tell myself. Over the course of a year, it slowly crept up on me. It was stress relief.”
“I’ve had problems with migraines and depression and pain pills made it worse, but I was in denial. One day at the ER, I had some leftover meds that were supposed to be discarded. So I injected myself with fentanyl and got relief, but the guilt was overwhelming. I pledged to never do it again, but the next day I did it anyway, and felt the euphoria. That’s when my brain got hijacked. I was mad at myself for not using this before!”
“Within a 3-month period, the dosage that I used went up ten-fold. It wasn’t an everyday thing, but 2-3 times a week, and each time I’d use, I’d increase my dose. I started getting a rush from stealing hospital drugs and not getting caught. I didn’t know what was happening to me.”
“One day at the hospital, I injected myself. Next thing I knew, I woke up and was covered in urine and vomit. There was a needle sticking out of my arm. ‘Oh my God,’ I said. ‘I could have overdosed.’ I proceeded to blame my husband, who had stressed me out prior to using.”
“The denial was so strong that the track marks on my arm didn’t phase me in the slightest. One day, I decided to write my children’s names on bandages on my arms, so that when I’d go to use, I’d think of them and I’d stop. I couldn’t stand the wait, ripped the bandages off, and injected. ‘What kind of mother am I?’ I asked myself.”
“When work finally caught me, I was forced to confront what I had so long avoided—I had to tell my husband. I was terrified to show him the track marks. But when I did, he embraced me and showed me love, which is what I so badly needed. I checked myself into rehab the next day.”
“I took a year off work to just focus on recovery. I successfully completed a 4-month outpatient program. For the next 8 months, I focused continued my healing. After a year, the hospital offered to hire me back. ‘Can I be an anesthesiologist and a drug addict? I was terrified.’ About 6 months later, I was placed on 5-years probation by the California medical board. That means for nearly 7 years, I had to pee into a cup weekly. I never failed once.”
“The medical board required me to take an ethics course, too—which was odd, because addiction is not an ethical problem. It’s a medical disease. And for my drug testing, I was only required to be clean of the drugs I was taking—opiates. I also took a continuing education course on addiction and related medical care.”
“I thought recovery would be getting taught what I need to know, and then a return to normalcy. I had no idea that once you’re an addict, you’re an addict for life. Recovery is a lifelong journey, and has to be tackled every day. Recovery taught me how to feel pain, so I could get to the other side of it, rather than numbing myself.”
“During those five years, I had breast cancer and had to have a double mastectomy. My mother had a stroke. My marriage was on the rocks. But thanks to recovery, I developed the bravery and focus to overcome these challenges without having to numb myself and give up. I’m grateful for the gift of recovery, which, ironically, I never would have received had I not become an addict.”
“I left anesthesia for lifestyle reasons. I’ve done this for twenty years. I’m starting a new direction—aesthetic medicine. Things I would have been too scared to do before I feel motivated to tackle. At 50-years-old, I wanted control of my destiny. I wanted to help people who are struggling with addiction.”
“I know there’s stigma. I know people will judge me. But if sharing my story helps just one person, it was all worth it. You can beat this disease if you are willing to commit to recovery. And the more physicians stay quiet due to stigma, the less help people are going to receive. Addiction doesn’t discriminate. It’s an equal opportunity killer. It’s time to shed a light on it.”
Her take on the crisis:
How is limiting access to opioids, for people like me who don’t have a propensity toward addiction, fair?
“Environment and genetics play a part. For me, it was the perfect storm of depression, pain, anxiety and access . I don’t know if I would have become an addict had I not shot up fentanyl. Before I emigrated to the US, I suffered childhood trauma but never dealt with it. I felt like no one could help me, and I think that could have played a factor too. I think the medical field is experiencing a yo-yo syndrome. In 2007-2008, they claimed opiates were not addictive. Now, the pendulum has swung the other way. ‘Don’t give any narcotics!’ There is a place for narcotics, but that doesn’t mean you should start every patient on narcotics. This is why all or nothing doesn’t work. There is a middle ground for each specific patient that should be considered.”
Plenty of other OTC products and prescriptions result in fatalities, not the least of which are cigarettes and alcohol. They claim far more lives than RX painkillers, why are we not targeting them as well?
“Cigarettes don’t generally interfere with someone’s ability to function. But it causes more problems that any other type of drug. Alcohol is a HUGE problem, too. And as for all drugs, we need to help all addicts. The difference between smoking and narcotics, though, is the exponential effects from opioids is far more destructive. And, treating addiction needs to be a holistic approach.”
Why is this crisis being treated as the worst ever, while the crack epidemic in the 1990’s was treated as a criminal issue, rather than a health issue?
“That is my biggest problem with all this. Where was the outcry? They were treated like criminals. But now when white populations are being wiped out, all of a sudden it’s a national crisis. The racial disparity is unavoidable.”
Do you think the war on drugs is a failure, why or why not?
“There should be a war on pharmaceutical companies that are dumping narcotics while ignoring the devastation they are causing. But rounding up addicts and putting them in jail, doesn’t do anyone any good. Teenagers shouldn’t smoke pot every day because it can impair memory. But for adults, whatever. You do you. One of the big issues, though, is lack of regulation and control over supply.”
Do you think drugs should be legalized and regulated?
“Yes. A person who is using marijuana is not shooting up heroin, for example. Criminality shouldn’t be associated with drug use. And again, the racial disparity in drug crime convictions plays a huge factor”
Do you consider gun violence to be a public health issue on par with drug addiction?
“Absolutely. We regulate everything, like cars, because they can be used as lethal weapons. Here we have guns, a literal lethal weapon, and there’s virtually no regulation. And when they talk about mental health with guns, look at other countries. Every country has mental health issues. But they don’t put guns in the hands of their citizens. That’s why mass shootings happen so frequently here, and so seldom there.”
“Vote for people who are willing to support treatment and hold pharmaceutical companies accountable,” Dr. Jamali concluded at the end of the interview.