Lou Ortenzio was a trusted West Virginia doctor who got his patients—and himself—hooked on opioids. Now he’s trying to rescue his community from an epidemic he helped start.
Well past seven one evening in 1988, after the nurses and the office manager had gone home, as he prepared to see the last of his patients and return some phone calls, Dr. Lou Ortenzio stopped by the cupboard where the drug samples were kept.
Ortenzio, a 35-year-old family practitioner in Clarksburg, West Virginia, reached for a box of extra-strength Vicodin. The box contained 20 pills, wrapped in foil. Each pill combined 750 milligrams of acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, with 7.5 milligrams of hydrocodone, an opioid painkiller.
Ortenzio routinely saw patients long after normal office hours ended. Attempting to keep up with the workload on this day, he had grown weary and was suffering from a tension headache; he needed something to keep him going. He unwrapped a pill, a sample left by a drug-company sales rep, certain that no one would ever know he’d taken it. Ortenzio popped the pill in his mouth.