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Outstanding service: Hagerstown doctor receives recognition from the state

June 07, 2010|By TIFFANY ARNOLD
  • Dr. Martin Gallagher, a former Jesuit Catholic priest, was named Outstanding Physician by National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence -- Maryland.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer,

The improvised "as long as it takes" sign taped on Dr. Martin Gallagher's office door has a double meaning for the recovering drug and alcohol addicts who come to his Hagerstown practice for help.

It's supposed to remind those waiting to have patience because his visits aren't capped at 15 minutes, and he's the only doctor there.

But sometimes the path to recovery, too, requires patience.

"I think that we need to be kinder to our addicted patients," Gallagher said, during a recent morning in his office. "It's not a moral flaw. Addicts are not some kind of demon being possessed by drugs. They're not doing something by an evil choice. These are people with an illness."

Nearly a year since he opened his practice, Gallagher 72, of Hagerstown, was named Outstanding Physician by National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence - Maryland. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence is a national organization advocating prevention, intervention and treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. The Maryland chapter presented the award in April during a yearly conference.

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Gallagher, who opened his practice in June, said he was honored to have received the award, but said he didn't see it as an award for individual achievement. Instead, he said winning the award was a way of acknowledging the health care providers who take the patients that many primary care physicians won't - drug addicts.

"I do believe that doctors are extremely privileged people," Gallagher said. "We are given permission by patients to enter into their lives at times when they are most vulnerable, often in physical and emotional trauma, and I think that should make us very humble and honored that people are willing to come and share their pain with us.

"For me, the best response is to see if there's any way we can help to alleviate that pain," Gallagher said.

Most know Gallagher as the doctor who, in 1990, founded the Community Free Clinic in Hagerstown. But before that, Gallagher was a Jesuit Catholic priest.

He didn't start medical school until he was 41.

"I come from a long tradition, a feeling, a belief that we owe to the community, that our difference in this world will be measured not by what we do for ourselves but by what we do for others," Gallagher said.

Gallagher, who retired - kind of - from the medical profession in 2002, volunteers his time as a physician at Wells House, a halfway house for men with addictions.

Today, Gallagher has around 100 patients at his private practice. He said nearly all of them were addicted to alcohol or drugs.

Most of his patients are opiate addicts, Gallagher said.

Doctors prescribe opiates for pain management after serious injuries or accidents, Gallagher said. But addicts use opiates to get high.

Gallagher said that many of life's stressors that cause people to become addicts revolve around control. He said people are frustrated by the things they can't control, which in turn makes them angry, depressed or anxious. People medicate themselves by taking drugs - an unhealthy coping mechanism.

It's not as simple as stopping "cold turkey," Gallagher said. The drug affects chemicals in the brain, causing dependence and severe withdrawal symptoms.

As part of the treatment for opiates, Gallagher prescribes a different kind of opiate, Suboxone.

He said that in this case, treating an opiate with another kind of opiate works.

When used in high doses, Suboxone acts as an antagonist, he said.

"It doesn't cause euphoria. There's no high involved," Gallagher said. "What it does is it takes away the cravings."

Overtime, patients are slowly weaned from the Suboxone through gradually lowering the dosage.

Gallagher said he assumes that when addicts enter his office, they're there because they want to become sober. He likes to remind his patients that there's always a choice to do the right thing. He said he feels sorry for the patients who relapse.

"I feel badly for them," he said. "The attempt to get clean and sober is very difficult. It takes a lot of effort, and to go back to a lifestyle in which you're spending all of your money looking for illicit drugs, and too, their next thought in the morning is where will I get my next fix? That's a very, very distressing way to live."

Gallagher works three days a week, 10 hours a day at his Hagerstown practice. "But really it's more than that," Gallagher said, once you include the time it takes to handle all the paper work.

The only person staffed at the office is his partner, nurse Bill Striler.

His practice charges $150 for the first visit; $50 for all other visits thereafter. Comparatively, he said, a physician typically averages about $100 an hour.

"We make our bills," Gallagher said.

Gallagher said he's not in this to turn a profit.

"My own conviction is if I am able - by however small a degree - am able to reduce the total burden of human suffering on the earth, than my own life will have had purpose, indeed."

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