ROCKWELL — Each morning, he wakes up and asks God for another day of sobriety. Then he gets up and goes to work.
He walks with a slight hitch in his gait. His speech and manner are deliberate, thoughtful. His brown eyes are clear. His smile is gentle. And his bedside manner is kind.
Dr. Joe Oliver began his solo practice at Rockwell Medical Clinic in October 1995. His grandfather practiced medicine in this town for years. His father is an OB-GYN in California, his brother an OB-GYN in Alaska. He spent summers with his grandparents, often accompanying his grandfather on house calls. He was always around medicine, so it was the natural thing to do. He chose to practice family medicine because he liked the variety.
Things went well until August 2006, when Oliver got horribly dizzy in the shower one morning. He thought he was having inner-ear trouble, and he got better in a couple of days. Three days later, he was on his way to the office to get some work done and stopped to get gas. That's when he had a major stroke.
“You never want to think it's happening to you,” he says.
He was 49 at the time, and went back to work within a couple weeks.
“Pride and denial kept me from recognizing the cause of why I had the stroke,” Oliver says.
The stroke was caused by atrial fibrillation, which is an abnormal heart rhythm, as well as a dilated alcoholic cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart. Both conditions were caused by Oliver's alcoholism. But he wasn't ready to face it.
“I knew I drank a little too much,” Oliver says. “I didn't drink at work. I didn't have withdrawal. I was too smart for that kinda thing. All this fed my denial big-time. I was taking Coumadin and I read in the medication instructions where it said alcohol was OK to drink. I was doing OK, so I had a couple of small drinks.
“I had been drinking beer but I switched to whiskey. I drank until 10 or so at night. It was just a daily thing in the evening. I was drinking a pint every evening. I knew friends who were drinking 12 packs every night, but I was smarter than they were. I started buying a fifth of whiskey because that lasted longer. Then I bought a half-gallon because it was so much more economical. Of course I had this under control.”
Until, of course, he didn't.
Over time, he was drinking more than he did before the stroke. He stopped walking for exercise, which was helping him recover.
“Then my health started deteriorating,” he says. “I was not taking care of myself. Was I 100 percent at my peak? No.”
Then someone made a complaint about Oliver, because they thought he was impaired at work. In October 2007, an investigator explained to him that if he voluntarily surrendered his license and went through treatment, he may be able to practice medicine again.
“The hardest thing I ever did in my life was to sign that paper surrendering my license,” he says.
The date was October 12, 2007.
With the combination of drinking and the effects of the stroke, Oliver could not walk steadily.
“I was scared to death and wondering how in the world this could have happened,” he says. “I had to give up trying to run the show. It's one thing to believe in God and another thing to give my life and will over to Him. But it was either turn the reins over to him, or I would die.”
His sobriety date was Oct. 23, 2007, when he checked into rehab in Atlanta. He then continued his treatment on Nov. 28, 2007, with a second program in Monroe. He finished there on Dec. 26, 2007.
By January 2008, he was ready to get his license back.
“I had a counselor in Monroe who was a great dude,” Oliver says. “He got all my ducks in a row. All I had to do was shoot them.”
He signed a contract with the North Carolina Physicians Health Program to be monitored. He submitted to urine testing. He underwent speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy. He took an extensive neuropsychological evaluation to ensure that alcohol had not impaired his ability to practice medicine.
It had not.
So Oliver began to put together a re-entry plan to submit to the North Carolina Medical Board. All the while, he kept up his licensure with continuing medical education. He submitted his plan to the board, but then was told he had to take yet another extensive assessment in Colorado at the Center for Personalized Education for Physicians. This assessment carried a price tag of nearly $8,000, but because he had been working with Vocational Rehab, the fee was paid.
“This was another instance when God did for me what I couldn't do for myself,” Oliver says.
Back in the saddle
Where others may have given up — or perhaps turned to alcohol — Oliver remained focused on his goal and persevered. On Nov. 5, 2012, he returned to his practice.
“It was wonderful,” he says. “I'm having the time of my life now. Some of the junk and aggravations are still here, but what has changed is my attitude and how I deal with them. Part of the lesson I learned was that drinking never solved any of my problems.”
Oliver says he seems to be a magnet for complicated cases — and that's fine by him.
“I enjoy what I do immensely,” he says. “I'm just so grateful to be back.”
So are his patients.
Wayne and Barbara Fowler of Gold Hill have been with Oliver since he began his practice.
“We've always really liked him a lot,” Fowler says. “He's a good doctor.”
Oliver realized Barbara Fowler's insulin medication was not working correctly, and changed it. Now her blood sugar is in the 120s instead of over 300.
“As far as his mind goes,” Fowler says. “He's sharp. He listens to you and checks you out. I just like him. I can talk to him like one of my buddies.
“I was in there Friday and he was messing with a box that had just come in from UPS. He opened it and he was just like a kid. It was a new master cylinder for his '57 Chevy.”
James and Linda Hand of Salisbury are newer patients who recently came from a larger practice. Both have diabetes. James Hand has had heart problems and Linda Hand also has high blood pressure.
“We both like him,” she says. “He's got a good bedside manner. He seems like a really genuine person. So far, it's been great.”
Because their insurance allowed them to go to Crescent Pharmacy, they decided to visit Oliver, who was right next door.
“He's changed some of our medicines,” Linda Hand says. “So far, it's helped us. He does not rush. He comes in and sits down, and asks a lot of questions. We've been real tickled with him. His health issues have not affected his ability to practice medicine.”
Beth Yount has been Oliver's medical office assistant since December. They've known each other a good while, she says.
“He sits down and takes his time with patients,” Yount says. “He tries to follow in his grandpa's footsteps. He tries to explain what's going on with a patient.
“For all he's had to go through, he's stayed so calm. Most people would have just given up. But he's dedicated. He likes to help people. He's had an addiction. He understands it and he can relate. That's why I love being here. I'm doing my part. We're taking care of people. It's a good feeling.”