Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Dr. Walter Byrd

Twenty one years ago, the Oregon Medical Association was in the throes of suffering a string of devastating losses. A number of physicians had taken their own lives after coming before the Oregon Medical Board for having issues with drug or alcohol use.

Professional licensing agencies like the Oregon Board of Medical Examiners operate in a protected fashion, with rather broad immunity from legal pushbacks. Operating under administrative law, the Board has wide latitude and no real check against the abuse of their far reaching power. It is a far cry from the criminal or civil justice systems that we are all more familiar with. The result is medical boards have little impetuous to curb the misuse of their powers. The combination can be devastating.

The doctors spoken of had witnessed their careers come to an abrupt end, their licenses suspended or revoked, with no clear means before them by which they could put their lives back together. The loss of their lives was wasteful, tragic and unnecessary. Their deaths posed a very great loss to our community, and made no sense in terms of providing care to patients. Their deaths were the result of hopelessness.

Alcoholism and drug addiction are life threatening diseases. However, their presence in one's life does not mean one's life is to be thrown away. Dr. Walter Byrd understood that.

Dr. Byrd was a urologist by training, and also liked to practice some general medicine, but in the early eighties he turned his focus to addiction medicine. He became a proponent for professionals from a variety of fields, including medicine, dentistry and the law. In the late eighties he was the driving force for the establishment of a program that would allow physicians who had come under the influence of drugs and alcohol to receive treatment, be monitored and move into recovery. The key aspect of the program was confidentiality, for with it people struggling could seek and receive help without placing their future in jeopardy. Through a cooperative effort from the Oregon Medical Association and the Oregon Board of Medical Examiners, his efforts culminated with the Oregon Legislature passing Senate Bill 1032, which in 1989 established the Oregon Health Professionals Program.

Physicians in recovery held Dr. Byrd in high esteem for his commitment, understanding, and his pervading hopefulness and belief that the lives of impaired physicians were worth saving.

Today is a different day. We have returned to a primitive environment. Ponderous slow thinkers like Mitch Greenlick of the Oregon Legislature, dreaming up ways in which the state can more tightly assert its control on the lives of individual citizens, took it upon themselves to tear down the means by which physicians had a chance at recovery. The Oregon Board of Medical Examiners also played a major role in this life wasting destruction.

Politicians love seen benefits. Most, however, have no notion of unseen costs. Mitch Greenlick is no exception. The result is the Oregon State legislature put an end to the OHPP program, and replaced it on July 1st, 2010 with a monitoring system run through the Department of Human Services. This program offers licensees no protection from a punitive and necessarily adversarial licensing Board, is by no means an avenue for physicians to seek help, and is in no way invested in recovery.

Dr. Walter Byrd lost his fight with cancer and left us in September of 2009. The recovery program he crafted was killed by the Oregon legislature a short ten months later. Both were of great service to our community.

They will be missed.

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