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Dr. DUI: This time, I’ll make it

By Maya Bell
6/24/2009 © Health News Florida

Now that he has a green light from the state, dermatologist Hal Ridgway hopes to be back in practice in a month or two, with his history of drinking, bipolar disorder and cycle of relapses under control.

“I’m just looking for the right office space and to hire the right help,’’ Ridgway said in a phone interview this week with Health News Florida. “I love dermatology. I like helping people. It’s why I went into medicine.’’

For now, he said, he doesn’t know where he’ll hang his shingle, a decision he called “very difficult.’’ He acknowledged that people in West Palm Beach, where he practiced before going to prison in 2006 on his sixth alcohol-related driving offense, may be wary.

But he says he’s ready for the challenge of starting over at age 58.

“My skills and my knowledge are still there, and I’m doing everything right,’’ Ridgway said. “I’m going to my AA and support-group meetings and following all of PRN’s recommendations.’’

PRN – the Professionals Resource Network, which operates the Impaired Practitioners Program of Florida for the state Department of Health – is monitoring Ridgway.

Raymond Pomm, PRN’s medical director, cleared the way for Ridgway’s formal return to practice when he advised the Board of Medicine at its June 5 meeting in Fort Lauderdale that Ridgway is “clean and sober” and “safe” to practice again.

And that’s as it should be, said PRN General Counsel Jennifer Hinson, who described PRN’s success rate as outstanding. Eighty-eight percent of physicians who enter PRN and go through treatment and a monitored recovery program do not relapse, she said. Of those who do, more than 70 percent relapse only once  -- results far superior to those programs that treat the general public, she said.

“A vast majority of the people referred to PRN go back to practice because that’s one of the main purposes of PRN,’’ Hinson said. “The only other option is to take them out of practice completely and that doesn’t serve the public, or the practitioner.’’

Ridgway once had a thriving practice, Forest Hill Dermatology Associates, and according to a former colleague, a reputation as a gifted and caring physician.

“When his disease is under control, he’s an excellent doctor,’’ said Thomas Ross, a semi-retired dermatologist who said he sold Ridgway the practice in the 1990s. “People loved him. He’s a very bright man, a very good-hearted man and he ran a wonderful practice.’’

Ross, who said he remained in Ridgway’s office for about eight years after the sale, surmised that his colleague’s bipolar disorder, coupled with the stress of adding a partner and keeping a large staff happy, pushed Ridgway “over the limit” and exacerbated his drinking problem.

“I wish him well, and I really think he can do it,’’ Ross said. “Doctors get sick, too, and as long as he treats his disease, it will be OK.’’

Ridgway’s former partner, dermatologist Charles E. Griff, could not be reached for comment.

As Health News Florida reported last week, Ridgway was arrested six times over 20 years for alcohol-related driving offenses, including one that claimed the life of a 26-year-old Wisconsin motorist in 1989. He served a year in prison there before moving to Florida.

PRN has monitored Ridgway since at least August 2002, in between his DUI arrests, his relapses and his second prison term, which began in 2006. Released in December 2007, Ridgway regained his driver’s license, which he was supposed to have relinquished for 10 years, in December 2008 on the condition that he drive only for work.

His medical license carries conditions, too. He must practice under indirect supervision by another dermatologist while he is on probation.

Ridgway acknowledges that he has blown a lot of chances in the past, but this time he says he’ll succeed.

“It’s hard to say (why), but it is different,’’ he said.