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Arrested addiction doctor has had long struggle with drugs

The young man sat in a chair in the exam room, his shoulders slumped, his eyes looking tired. He had just spent his first night at Horizon Village Terrace House where he hoped to get clean.

"I'm here to change my life," he told the doctor seated at a desk next to him who typed his responses into a computer.

The doctor asked the young man his drug of choice: "If you had a $100 in your pocket right now, what would you buy?"

Cocaine, the man said. "It's a hell of a drug."

The doctor nodded. He knew all too well.

It was March 3, 2017, Dr. Torin Finver was the medical director of Terrace House. He was well-respected in the local addiction treatment community for his expertise as well as openness about his own battles with drug addiction.

Last Monday, it appeared the 54-year-old doctor's recovery had taken a major stumble when he was arrested at his Hamburg home on a charge of importing controlled substances. Federal authorities said that he admitted to using the dark web to buy cocaine and heroin which he had shipped to his house.

He has since lost his job with Horizon, where he served as the medical director of  both Terrace House and Renaissance House for youth. He surrendered his license to prescribe controlled substances. The University at Buffalo, where he served on the faculty, terminated him on Dec. 20.

Prosecutors: Addiction doctor bought cocaine, heroin over 'dark web'

And now he must start over on his journey toward sobriety.

"Dr. Finver is clearly somebody that is suffering from a very difficult and devastating disease," said Anne Constantino, Horizon's president and CEO. "Honestly, our prayers are with him that he finds his recovery in peace and finds a way to survive this."

Constantino and other colleagues in his field were saddened by the news of Finver's arrest. But they all also said that relapses in recovery are not uncommon.

Finver knew that better than anyone.

'A public example'

In March 2017, Finver spoke several times with The Buffalo News about his past experiences with drug abuse and addiction recovery and how it helps him relate to his patients and show them what it takes to overcome addiction.

At the time, he was a few months shy of nine years of sobriety. "I like to say I have 16 years of recovery, just not in a row," he said.

His story starts out like that of many of his patients. He thinks he was about 14 when he started drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana on occasion.

By the time he went to college at Duke University, he was snorting cocaine too.

He joined a fraternity, and looking back, he thinks he used the constant partying as cover for his worsening addiction problem. His grades took a dive and Finver said the university "asked me to take a leave." He went back home to Queens, N.Y.

"My parents figured it out," Finver said.

He stopped taking drugs and immersed himself in kung fu. His teacher became his mentor and he felt like he had control over his life.

He eventually went back to school, finishing medical school at the University at Albany. However, it didn't go as planned. Finver had his heart set on becoming an ear, nose and throat specialist but he couldn't get into that residency program. He ended up in internal medicine, but was disappointed in himself. Around the same time his relationship with his girlfriend fell apart.

"I had a lot of anger about Albany," he said.

He turned to drugs. This time it was crack cocaine.

When Albany police arrested the man Finver bought his drugs from, they found the doctor's phone number on the man's beeper. They came for Finver and his arrest was front page news.

"I was made a public example of," he recalled.

It was an embarrassing and difficult period. "I was isolated and angry," he said. His supervisors didn't know how to help him.

A physician at a rehab facility in Central New York heard about his story and reached out to him. The physician convinced him to come to a long-term rehab program tailored to professionals, like doctors.

He completed the program and then was able to do a medical residency in Pennsylvania, before landing a job in family medicine in Ithaca.

For a while life seemed to be good for Finver. He got married, and two days before his 40th birthday, his daughter was born and he convinced himself he was free of his addictions. He started drinking alcohol.

Eventually, he started seeking out drugs again: cocaine and pain pills.

His said his wife knew something was wrong but he refused to address it. She left him and took their daughter. He lost his job, and soon wound up living out of his car.

Determined to get sober, he checked himself into another long-term addiction treatment center, this time in Atlanta, where he was mentored by another doctor who had fought addiction.

Once he got out of rehab, he faced a new reality. He couldn't practice medicine until he had a hearing before the medical licensing board in New York to have his license restored. They wouldn't even let him schedule it for three years and he had to wait another two before the hearing would take place.

In the meantime, he took whatever jobs he could get. He waited tables and drove a delivery truck for the Salvation Army. But he soon found work closer to his field – reviewing cases for a clinic that specializes in alternative medicine. It was a humbling experience, but it forced him to be truthful about himself and his addiction.

"If you tell the truth, and you show a sincere desire to do the right thing, people are willing to help," he said.

Three years ago, he became the medical director for Horizon. He was also the program director for the addiction fellowship at the University at Buffalo's medical school.

A respected colleague

In working with patients with addictions, he sometime used his own experiences, he said in the March interviews.

"It lessens the shame," he said.

It wasn't always easy to do so, he acknowledged. "I'm careful with who I share it with," Finver said.

But ultimately, he knew it helped him relate to his patients. "My past makes me a stronger person," he said.

His colleagues agreed that his past experiences made him a better doctor.

"People who have had problems with substance abuse often make the very best counselors and role models," said Dr. Nancy J. Nielsen, the senior associate dean for health policy at UB who has been a vocal advocate for fighting the opioid epidemic in Western New York.

"He is good," she said. "He did a very good job. ... I've heard him lecture and it comes from a place of both knowledge and experience."

Constantino said Finver played a key role in developing the services at Terrace House.

"He saved people's lives," she said. "He did a great job.  He's a very passionate, committed person to recovery. He had a personal experience that drove his passion. ... He really was able to make a connection with many patients. He shared their journey, the insanity of the disease. He understood."

As an expert in addiction, Finver was sometimes quoted in the national media. Two years ago, he was interviewed in numerous publications about the powerful opioid fentanyl, following the overdose death of Prince. Earlier this year, he sounded warnings about the effect of marijuana on developing brains of young people.

It's not clear when Finver began using drugs again.

When Finver was arrested Monday, he told authorities that he had been buying drugs through the dark web for about two months. He also revealed he had synthetic urine samples in his basement that he used for his weekly drug screening tests. At a news conference Wednesday, U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy said there was no indication that Finver was obtaining drugs through his work at Horizon nor was he supplying drugs to patients.

His colleagues were heartbroken by the news of his arrest.

"The bottom line is addiction is a chronic relapsing condition," Nielsen said. "But it's treatable. We know this is a brain disease and often, it's a lifelong struggle."

Dr. Richard D. Blondell, professor of family medicine and vice chair of addiction medicine at UB, said addiction is treatable, but there is no cure.

"People don't understand," Blondell said. "If it was completely under voluntary control, we wouldn't be having this problem with addiction."

He pointed out that if a doctor was facing another medical battle – such as a recurrence of cancer – the community would rally around him or her. "There'd be a lot of empathy. Everyone would be there for them. There'd be pink ribbons or marathons or whatever they do. But when something like this happened, it's someone's darkest hour and their support often disappears."

It's times like this when a person dealing with an addiction problem needs the most support.

"The tragedy is he's such a nice guy," Blondell said. "He's such a good doctor. He worked hard, probably to his detriment. Because of his own personal situation, he had great insight and empathy for his patients. It's such a tragic loss to the community."

Finver's relapse may serve as a lesson for families of people struggling with addiction. "If a doctor who is looking at major consequences, who understands how the disease works, if that doctor struggles with recovery, the average Joe or Jane doesn't have a prayer," Blondell said.

He can't speak for how Finver's patients feel, but he thinks some of them will understand and he hopes the public will see that doctors, just like everyone else, are vulnerable to the disease of addiction.

"Underneath it all," Blondell said, "they're still human beings and suffer from the frailties everyone else does."

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