AUGUSTA – It’s disappointing that the hero doctor in the TV program “House” is addicted to Vicodin, said Dr. Lani Graham.

Graham, however, knows doctors are not superhuman.

“We are a drug-using population at every level,” she said.

Graham is medical director of the Medical Professionals Health Program, which was set up to monitor Maine doctors who have been treated for alcohol and drug abuse and make sure they don’t relapse and put patients, and their careers, at risk. There are now about 100 people in the program from a variety of medical professions, including 36 physicians, 31 nurses, 13 pharmacists, five dentists and three physician assistants, Graham said. About half have been treated for alcohol abuse and half for abuse of prescription and other drugs.

Health professionals are as vulnerable as everyone else to substance abuse, maybe more so because of such factors as stress and easy access to drugs. The estimated prevalence rate for substance abuse is 5 to 8 percent of the general population, and it may be higher for health professionals, Graham said.

“None of us got any training about how we can protect ourselves in a relatively high-stress environment,” Graham said.

Kim Groothand, 50, a registered nurse from Portland, was working double shifts at a nursing home in southern Maine about six years ago when she went on the Internet to buy pain relievers. She initially got the pills to help her aching legs. They also took away her stress.

“It gives you a feeling that everything’s OK, a sense of peace,” she said.

She never snorted the pills or injected them, she said. She simply swallowed them. But, soon, she needed more and was addicted just the same.

She started stealing pills at work — morphine, OxyContin, “whatever I could get my hands on,” she said.

“I felt like I never deprived a patient. It was like two for you and one for me,” Groothand said. “If there was something I felt I wanted, I could get the doctor to prescribe it” for a patient who didn’t need it.

After about nine to 12 months, she got caught when another nurse noticed that the pill count on her medicine cart was short and the nursing home started looking at prescription records.

“I think, in the end, I just wanted to get caught. I got sloppy. I just hated it,” she said.

At the time, she thought she was the only nurse with an addiction. Now, she attends support meetings with other doctors and nurses who have similar stories. “It does go on more than people know,” she said.

Groothand admitted the abuse, and her license was suspended. She has been through addiction treatment and is waiting tables to support herself.

She recently got her license restored and hopes to put her experience back to work as a nurse in a substance abuse treatment center. She also hopes that, by agreeing to speak about her addiction, she will encourage others to seek help.

“I’m planning on never working around the drugs again,” she said. “It’s going to be like a whole new beginning.”

Groothand won’t have much opportunity to relapse.

She’ll likely have to check in with the Medical Professionals Health Program every business day, and submit to random urine tests and maybe an occasional blood or hair test. She will be required to attend treatment programs and participate in support group meetings. The program will also get status reports directly from her employer and treatment provider.

She will have to pay part of the cost herself, although funding also comes from professional licensing boards, hospitals, professional associations and other sources.

Graham and leaders of the Maine Medical Association want doctors who are struggling with substance abuse to come to the program for help voluntarily, before they get caught and disciplined. Most are now referred to the program by professional licensing boards.

The program, which was created by the Maine Medical Association, has a high success rate, Graham said. More than three-quarters of participants completely recover.

While protecting patients and public health, the program preserves medical careers that required huge investments of time and money to prepare for, she said.

“These people have a strong incentive,” Graham said. “This is an illness we are working with. It’s not a character flaw or a moral defect. It is an illness. Like any other illness, it requires treatment and people respond to it.”

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: [email protected]