Grateful for Medical College education, addiction specialist establishes bequest
Alan A. Wartenberg, MD ’72, GME ’80, remembers how the Medical College of Wisconsin stuck by him during difficult times as a student. With those days past and decades of successful practice under his belt, Dr. Wartenberg is now sticking by the Medical College. He and his wife, Carol, have established a bequest that will benefit College programs.
“I’ve always felt a tremendous sense of gratitude,” he said. “I always did very well in medical school. I believe that the type of things schools often look for are not always the things that make a good physician.”
Dr. Wartenberg believed the College “took a chance” by accepting him, so when the faculty and administration further supported him after he developed a chemical dependency while a medical student, he was even more appreciative. He used the opportunity afforded him through recovery to realize a fruitful career in addiction medicine, though he was originally determined to specifically not enter that field of practice.
At that time in the 1970s, addiction medicine was in its early stages, and for doctors who went through treatment themselves, it was often the only field in which they could get hired, Dr. Wartenberg said. There was also a mentality among patients that doctors couldn’t truly empathize unless they had gone through similar trials, a thought that persists today, though Dr. Wartenberg does not subscribe to it.
“Some patients say ‘unless you’ve been there, you can’t understand me,’ which I don’t necessarily believe,” he said. “The idea that the only people who can treat addiction are people who walked in their shoes is unproven, and I don’t believe it. I treat people on the basis of training and experience, not dogma.”
A general internist, Dr. Wartenberg found he had the ability and desire to mitigate stigma and improve programs for people with drug and alcohol addiction, including physicians. He served on the Medical College of Wisconsin faculty early in his career, splitting time between internal medicine and addiction medicine. A member of the Society of General Internal Medicine, Dr. Wartenberg has also served on impaired physician committees in Wisconsin and Massachusetts.
Now semi-retired, Dr. Wartenberg is the former medical director of the Addiction Recovery Program at Faulkner Hospital in Boston, Mass. He maintains a part-time private practice at Meadows Edge Recovery Center in Rhode Island. He is Corporate Medical Director of Discovery House, a group of 17 methadone treatment programs in six states. He is also Associate Medical Director of an opiate treatment program at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Providence, R.I. He said he has Carol and his daughters, Eve and Ruth, to especially thank for his success.
Dr. Wartenberg’s bequest to the College is unrestricted, but he is considering either designating it or adding funds for the further development of addiction medicine programming within the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine. Although there have been enormous changes at the College since he was there, he is impressed by its growth.
“The change in some ways makes me wistful, but in other ways makes me very proud of what they’ve done in research and in maintaining quality clinical care,” he said.
Dr. Wartenberg’s retirement plan additionally consists of two projects of personal interest. He attends writing workshops and aspires to write a great American novel. He also plans to work with Brown University to establish a medical school-based free clinic for the underserved with an emphasis on treating those with substance abuse. His goal is to volunteer as a mentor to students, teaching them how to behave toward such patients with respect, a key element to successful treatment.
“There are lots of people we treat who are challenging – schizophrenics, for example – but we treat those people like patients,” he said. “We treat people with addictions like perpetrators. If you treat them right, the outcomes are better.”
Dr. Wartenberg is also a prostate cancer survivor, 10 years in remission. He urges all of his male colleagues to observe routine health maintenance, including prostate exams and PSA tests.