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Sudden Exit as Clinic Chief Sends Addiction Specialist Reeling

by ROBIN FINN - July 26, 2000, New York Times Public Profile Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company.
Originally posted June 16, 2001; Revised: June 17, 2004

THERE'S a whole lot of nervous pacing going on inside Dr. Alexander F. DeLuca's feline-dominated apartment -- we're talking digs where pets command one of the two bathrooms -- on the viewless side of Central Park West.
Librado Romero/The New York Times

Watch out for the prowling cat quartet (Frenzy and Beast are his; Kate and Little Cat are his wife's) who used to have the place to themselves all day. Now they share space with an addled, idled addiction specialist who, until his dismissal two weeks ago, spent a decade at the Smithers Addiction Treatment and Research Center and was its director since 1998. "Frankly, I loved that clinic," he mutters.

Let's just say everybody's fur is ruffled, and when Dr. DeLuca, 45, finally settles down at the rickety dining table, he can't sit still. Instead, he methodically strips a real-life fruit still life of the red grapes in its bowl as he vents dismay over his firing (make that dismissal) and the "letter of recognition" (oops, he means resignation) he says his superiors coerced him into writing.

Neither absence nor abstinence (he is an Alcoholics Anonymous veteran) has made Dr. DeLuca's heart grow fonder of the St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center officials who ousted him as chief and medical director a day after the Christopher D. Smithers Foundation ran full-page newspaper advertisements condemning his modernist methods.

Did Dr. DeLuca, who calls the clinic, which is no longer directly linked to the foundation, "his baby," resign voluntarily in the wake of the hospital's ire after New York magazine (and a New York Post follow-up) depicted him as a radical bent on replacing zero-tolerance abstinence with substance-friendly moderation management?

"I don't know what I ever did to earn their enmity," he muses. "But to announce I'd resigned when I hadn't resigned yet, and to say that they have a long tradition of abstinence-oriented treatment and I no longer believed in that philosophy, do you know what that does in this small pond? That makes me essentially unemployable!" Yes, unemployment of the public, reputation-damaging sort is driving him to hysterics (but not, he avers, to drink).

That's why he's beating his breastbone like Celine Dion at encore time, why his laughter bounces off these prewar walls like shrapnel. (Dr. DeLuca laughs the way he eats grapes: reflexively, and without relish.) And it's why, though litigation-shy, he's hired a lawyer. "We're on the side of the angels here," he told a Smithers colleague shortly before the hospital, which confirmed his hiring in 1990 and subsequent promotions but refused to elaborate on his dismissal, placed him on the side of sacrilege.  

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I DIDN'T even get a chance to do my own damage control," he asserts. "They did it. I'm it. That I gave an unauthorized interview, that's for lawyers to talk about. But this idea that I changed Smithers into a moderation management clinic without telling them about it is absurd. I spent 10 years changing Smithers. I know what it takes to turn around an ocean liner like that. Smithers was and is an abstinence-oriented, abstinence-based treatment program. Abstinence is the best way. It's the safest way. But it's not necessarily everybody's way."

Did Dr. DeLuca deal with substance abusers who weren't ready to embrace abstinence? Guilty as charged. Done, he says, in the spirit of early intervention: "Better you should come in and talk to me and still drink than not come in at all." Radical words, those. But irrational? They're a product, he says, of research, not proof of antipathy toward the benchmark approach: "My personal recovery was through A.A.," he notes. "The whole nine yards."

One minute, the doctor is reluctant to rehash his personal history for fear the details -- a druggie and drunkard by 16, an alcohol and cocaine addict through medical school -- will distract from his Smithers exit. The next, he's pouring coffee and reliving a risky youth.

The child of doctors and destined, at least in their dreams, to become one, too, he attended Riverdale Country Day School and earned an athletic scholarship -- swimming -- to the University of Chicago. Trouble was, he was drinking heavily and in no shape to swim after high school: "I thought my life was too easy, that I'd make my own friction. I was going to take all the drugs and pass all the tests, and I damn near died trying."

He attended Vassar. Then came the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and marriage: he drank, did cocaine, denied he had an addiction until he wrecked his car, and his first marriage, in 1986. He called his mother, asked her to come get him because he was an alcoholic and wound up going to his first A.A. meeting sponsored by "Jimmy the phone repair guy." It seems Jimmy fixed the DeLuca phone one day, said no to a beer because he was a recovering alcoholic, then left his number in case they had more phone trouble.

A.A. worked, but in 1988, supervising the methadone program at Montefiore in the Bronx, he fell off the wagon and checked himself into a 28-day detox ward. He dropped out of medicine and into computers for two years and, with his self-esteem invisible, answered a classified ad in 1990 and was hired to direct the Smithers inpatient detox unit.

"In addiction medicine, you're allowed to have had such a past," he says. "You're allowed to be your nice, wacky self."

But maybe not at Smithers.

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Alexander DeLuca, M.D.

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Originally posted:  6/16/2001

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