Reader: I became a registered nurse in 2006. I have never worked harder or wanted anything more.
In 2012, my father died and I suffered a work-related injury, all within six weeks. I became addicted to opiates and had my nursing license suspended. I self-reported and signed a contract with the state’s drug diversion committee. I have been clean and sober for almost five years, have remained compliant with the committee on impaired nurses and regained my state nursing license.
However, I have struggled mightily to find a job. I have tried everything — being upfront on my cover letter, submitting professional letters of reference, not mentioning the suspension until the interview. I have no problem getting interviews, but as soon as I disclose my history, I can see the interviewers’ facial expressions change. I wonder if I should look into a different career, much as it breaks my heart. I don’t blame potential employers — I don’t know if I would hire a nurse with a history of license suspension. Do you have any advice?
Karla: I have thoughts, but nursing is such a specialized field that I’d like to consult some experts.
Your story is an increasingly familiar one, says Beth Collis, an attorney with Dinsmore & Shohl in Columbus, Ohio, who represents medical professionals in licensing cases. As with many people caught up in the opioid epidemic, Collis says it’s not uncommon for nurses to become injured, have pain medication prescribed, and become dependent on the medication to help them work longer hours or deal with emotional pain.
Although exact numbers can be hard to come by, Collis says more than half of the licensing cases she sees per year involve drug-related impairment, and the number has increased in the past 5 to 10 years. Larlene Dunsmuir, executive director of the Oregon Nurses Foundation, says Oregon’s state nursing board also reports an increase in disciplinary action for substance-use disorders, with estimates indicating impairment among 10 percent of nurses.
Even though you seem to have done all you can to overcome your addiction and clear your professional record, “health care does not have a culture of ‘second chances,’ ” says Dunsmuir. Collis notes that peers who view addiction as a character deficit rather than a disease can be judgmental.
The good news is, says Collis, “all of my clients find work again.” You may have to take a strategic detour from your original path, but you shouldn’t have to leave nursing altogether.
First, accept that some doors will be closed to you. Collis notes that hospices and short-term contract agencies, for example, simply cannot risk hiring nurses with a history of impairment.
So you need to focus on lower-risk environments that welcome your experience. Collis and Dunsmuir recommend mental health facilities, dialysis and plasma centers, phone advice positions, nursing education and case management as options where your history should be less of a concern and there will be fewer opportunities for relapse; addiction treatment centers in particular may see your history as an asset in relating to patients.
Above all, you should get comfortable with telling your story briefly and honestly, as you did in your letter. “If you have a story to tell, it’s best to tell it in person, and it’s best to have a personal contact who can make a personal reference,” says Collis. She also recommends sticking with your recovery program even after you land a job: “That first year will be the hardest time.”
For what it’s worth, I say your recovery shows strength of character, and your struggles make you a wiser, more compassionate caretaker. Employers who can see that will know you have a lot to offer. Best of luck in your continued personal and professional recovery.
Pro tip: Many states offer “alternative to discipline” programs to monitor and support health-care professionals with substance-abuse issues; the National Organization of Alternative Programs (alternativeprograms.org) publishes a member list with links to a variety of state programs.