Colorado State Penitentiary squats like a brown toad on a sun-blasted plain of stunted piñon and sagebrush, literally the end of the road. I hesitated before pressing the steel button of the main gate squawk box, hearing the raucous multilingual shouts from the housing pods even out in the parking lot. I clutched at my only weapon—a stethoscope. What the hell was I doing here?
This is the story of my odyssey from a comfortable career as a Midwestern ear surgeon to life as the sole physician for Colorado’s maximum security prison. It is an eyewitness account of practicing medicine among the state’s most violent and predatory criminals. I was not a visiting journalist with a notepad getting the spruced-up VIP tour. This was where I was to live and work.
After thirty-plus years as an ear doctor, I was bored. Burned out. I’d seen it all, done it all, got the T-shirt, etc. I needed to do something different. I saw an ad from the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) looking for doctors. This was different. It sounded intriguing, exotic with a hint of danger. I applied.
They were looking for general medical doctors. I was a neuro-otologist, a fancy name for a cross between an ear doctor and a neurosurgeon. If the medical mainstream orbits the sun, I was on Pluto. Desperation prevailed. They hired me.
My wife, much more sensible than I, balked at my announcement of a career change. She’s a very diplomatic woman, but the essence of her response was: Are you crazy! I had no good response to that. She was probably right, but I stuck to my decision to change. I let go of the trapeze and soared toward the world of correctional medicine.
Now that I had the job, I wondered if I could pull it off. I dimly remembered life as a general physician before I became a specialist. Sure. I could do this. I used to be a real doctor. The excitement and glamour of being a prison doctor beckoned.
What is the attraction of such institutions that draws us by the millions to watch reality shows about prisons and medical dramas? For the vast majority of us, the criminal justice system is something we’ll never personally experience. Ending up in a supermax prison is even less likely.
Likewise, intimate acquaintance with the workings of medicine is usually something people try to avoid. It’s all too alien and scary. Still, from a safe distance, we’re naturally curious about these other worlds.
Prisons fascinate us. Mystery, danger, violence, crime, life and death—all the things that make life worthwhile. Medicine is intriguing too. Doctors are modern high priests, working their miracles behind drapes of secrecy. Physicians have the mystery, life and death stuff down even if we come up short on crime and violence. Still, people watch crime, prison and medical shows on TV by the dozen, so it seemed a likely subject for a book when I became the doctor at Colorado’s supermax prison.
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