Dr. Timothy Huckaby never considered himself an alcoholic. A successful medical student on his way to a promising career, he lived by the motto “work hard, play hard.” It wasn’t unusual for him to have a few drinks on the weekends.And there was no shortage of booze on campus.
“In medical school, they had a student union where they would buy beer for us every single weekend. So we all drank a lot. We didn’t see a problem with that. That’s how we coped with life. We would party heavily on Friday night.”What Huckaby didn’t realize was that he was predisposed to addiction. “I began to have a real serious alcohol problem,” he said. “It ran in my family. My father was a Southern Baptist minister who quit drinking because he found the Lord. And I had grandfathers and uncles who were severe alcoholics, so I never understood any of that.” While he admits his drinking was out of control, it never led to trouble at work or with the law. But all of that changed in the ’90s when he had foot surgery and was introduced to opiates. “I couldn’t stop,” he said. “To the point that I had a serious opiate drug problem and my partners intervened and sent me to recovery.” But Huckaby never intended to stop drinking.
“I just wanted them to fix me for my opiate problem and return me back to my life. And at that point I wasn’t willing and ready. I didn’t understand.”
“Being the good addict that I was, I decided to self-treat myself.”He carried nitroglycerin until it became ineffective, and then he carried the nitroglycerin spray. “It was easy to get it,” he said. “It was like candy in the operating room.” Huckaby wasn’t the only medical professional to ever pilfer from a hospital drug supply. According a 2014 article published in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, between 10 and 14 percent of physicians have substance abuse disorders — similar to that of the general population. The same article cited a 2009 study that found anesthesiologists, like Huckaby, have a higher rate of substance use disorders than other physicians. Dr. Huckaby continued to self-medicate, but when the pain became too much to bear, he saw a cardiologist and learned he needed a stent in his heart. Convinced his opiate addiction was behind him, he didn’t bother to alert his doctor before the procedure. “So they took me to the cath lab, put an IV in me and loaded me up with fentanyl (an opiate) and Versed (a sedative). At that point, I really didn’t have a recovery program. I was totally unprepared for the way that it would tickle my brain, and I can remember when it hit. I was like ‘Oh my God, I forgot about how good this stuff felt.’” He took a few days off, and the following Monday, he swore he wouldn’t start using again.
“All the way back to work, I was thinking to myself ‘we’re not going to do this again, we’re not going to do this again,’ but before the day was over, I was injecting fentanyl.”
“Your bottom is an inside job.”
“I thought ‘What a cliché, you have a problem, so that’s what you’re going to do, go practice addiction medicine.’”But she asked him to keep an open mind and continued to check in with him regularly. “She kept bugging me and bugging me,” he said, adding that he was in no hurry to go back to work. But when she called a year later about an available fellowship at the University of Florida, Huckaby threw his hat in the ring and was invited to an interview. About 40 minutes into his ride home, they called to ask when he could start.