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Last Updated: Monday, 13 June, 2005, 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK
'I was an alcoholic doctor'
Dr Thomas Kenny worked in Accident & Emergency
As the British Medical Association calls for action over alcohol and drug abuse among medics, a former doctor tells how alcoholism ruined his career - and of the difficulties of admitting to a drink problem in the healthcare world.

Dr Thomas Gerard Kenny, 47, has spent the last year gaining a certificate in alcohol and addiction counselling in his hometown of Ballinasloe, Galway, in the Irish Republic.

I was probably an alcoholic from the first time I ever took a drink.

I was 17 and had just got the result of my leaving certificate at school in Ireland. It was just a few glasses of lager - but it changed me.

My parents were very disappointed because I have a family history of alcohol problems on my father's side. I vowed never to drink again.

But in college, when I did resume drinking, I didn't like the taste of pints so it was spirits from the start. There was a heavy drinking culture at my University. One particular pub in Galway was crowded at weekends with medical students falling all over the place.

Stressful job

It was the kind of bravado that was expected.

I could drink up to 10 shorts in an evening without getting physically sick like my contemporaries. Consequently, I got away with it for a long time before I began to think it was a problem.

My first job in England was as a locum senior house officer in Accident and Emergency at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead.

My drinking was semi-controlled and secretive at this point. I didn't go to pubs, I bought alcohol in off-licences and took it back to my hospital room.

I do remember one consultant saying he presumed I'd had a glass of wine with my lunch - but it was probably a neat vodka
It was a very, very stressful job. The Royal Free was a major teaching centre in London. I'd had quite a bit of experience in A&E and could function well, with or without a hangover.

I was probably trying to disguise the smell of alcohol on me by chewing mints or garlic but nobody seemed to pass much heed.

I do remember one consultant saying he presumed I'd had a glass of wine with my lunch - but it was probably a neat vodka.

It was mostly when I was off duty, but I'm talking possibly a bottle of vodka a day. I might have a top up in the day if I could leave the environment of Casualty to go somewhere where I might have a bottle stashed.

Drunk at airport

I can see that was absolutely outrageous. But strangely enough, when I look back on all the patients I saw in that hospital, I didn't make any wrong decisions.

The Royal Free did investigate all the cases I'd seen and didn't find me at fault.

I'm not very proud of that but I'm relieved that nobody was injured or given the wrong treatment.

There were other senior house officers and a registrar so I would hand the patient over if I was unsure. I do accept it probably clouded my judgement. I tended to err on the side of caution.

There was one day I didn't make it into work because I was drinking at Dublin Airport and when I got to Luton in England I continued drinking until I practically passed out. The Casualty Registrar had to come and get me. That's when my problem became known in the hospital.

It was my pattern to run away and find another job
I was given a chance to go and see Professor Max Glatt in Chelsea. He was an expert in counselling doctors for alcohol addiction. But I just couldn't face it and went drinking instead.

I went back to the hospital the next day and told a blatant lie, saying I'd gone.

Professor Glatt wasn't even in the country so they confronted me with this and then I found a reason to resign.

Shortly after that I went to Australia. It was my pattern to run away and find another job.

I became involved with the Doctors' Recovery Group in Brisbane. I was working in the outback, doing quite well. I had a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous and saved enough money to buy a medical practice.

Then the Queensland Medical Board wrote to tell me they had received information from the GMC in London and were automatically erasing my name from their working list.

I left Australia.

Vulnerable patients

Three years ago, I was working in Northern Ireland as a locum senior house officer in psychiatry at the Downshire Hospital in Downpatrick.

I'd spent the intervening years in recovery, and was reinstated to the medical register.

But I lied by omission and was completely on the defensive all the time, covering up my background and places where I'd worked.

In Northern Ireland, I was plunged into areas of community psychiatry that I wasn't really qualified to do, and was doing the jobs of two people, but that's just by way of background rather than an excuse for what ultimately happened.

Coming back from a home visit, I stopped at a petrol station in a town called Castlewellan. I remember buying a bottle of vodka and going into the toilet and pouring it into an orange juice bottle. From the moment I did that, everything was a landslide.

I drove back to my residences and drank the vodka. I was on call but was unable to respond to my bleep. I just kept hoping it would go away.

It was a dreadful scenario that I faced, particularly in psychiatry where you are dealing with very vulnerable people who would often not be in a position to decipher whether a doctor had taken a drink.

Ask for help

I've been full of guilt and remorse. I've gone back over certain jobs that I did and racked my brains, trying to think whether I did something wrong. It was a cause of tremendous pain and angst for me.

I would tell any doctors reading this who are worried about their drinking not to be frightened to go for help.

There are all kinds of helpful situations within the fellowship of AA - the Sick Doctor Scheme and the Doctors' Recovery Group.

Safeguards are a little better now. People are more inclined to confront a colleague or perhaps lead them towards help. If that did happen in my situation, then I missed the signs.

But I still think there are many other Tom Kennys on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Your life in their boozy hands
09 Jun 05 |  Real Story
Why alcohol is addictive
15 Mar 04 |  Health
'How drink ruined my life'
13 Mar 04 |  Health

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