“I would take a handful of them, I wouldn't even count them. I would just take them. I had such unbelievable access to it because I had it in my office. It was sitting right there.”
Dr. Brandon Ross is talking about Vicodin, a powerful -- and very addictive – prescription narcotic.
After performing a hair transplant surgery, Ross prescribed Vicodin for his patients, instructing them to take one or two tablets every four to six hours as needed for pain. Then he’d go home and take dozens of the narcotic pills at a time.
Worse, he would take the Vicodin with alcohol and while abusing other drugs, including cocaine.
It was a stunning and rapid decline into an all-consuming addiction that cost the 47-year-old medical specialist his family, his income and almost his life.
But Ross’s story is also one of redemption, and the power of self-discipline, friendship, and love, that helped him regain what he lost and gave him a new purpose and mission in life.
Ross insists, he never used drugs on the job.
“I wasn't actively abusing and then going and doing surgery, so I wasn't putting anyone in jeopardy.” But after work, all bets were off. Ross told NBC 7 Investigates he sometimes blacked out from the combined effects of drugs and alcohol.
That self-destructive, addictive behaviour started when Ross was in his 30s and continued unabated until October 2011, when San Diego police officers stopped Ross after his estranged wife called 911 and reported that Ross had threatened to kill himself.
Officers spotted a loaded gun and extra ammunition on the passenger seat of Ross’s car. A search of the trunk revealed a backpack stuffed with $25,000 in cash, four pills containing Hydrocodone (another powerful and addictive narcotic), and hypodermic syringes with needles.
That arrest prompted the state Medical Board to file an accusation against Ross’s medical license. According to that document, Ross "admitted he had consumed two bottles of wine the night prior and about a 'quarter of an eight ball of cocaine around 6 this morning.'" Ross also told SDPD’s Psychiatric Emergency Response Team he had consumed another gram of cocaine and two more bottles of wine early that same afternoon.
Ross also admitted ordering almost 7,000 doses of a powerful pain killer, "for his personal use."
In August 2012, the Medical Board suspended Ross's license for four months and placed him on probation for 10 years. He also surrendered his DEA permit and agreed to stop prescribing controlled substances. In addition, Ross promised to "abstain completely from the personal use or possession of controlled substances" and alcohol, and submit to drug and alcohol testing.
Ross told NBC 7 Investigates he worked hard to keep his addiction at bay and save his medical practice, and rebuild his personal life. But a year later, in October 2013, Ross failed to take a required substance abuse test and admitted he’d been drinking again.
The Medical Board revoked his probation, and ordered him to immediately stop treating patients. Ross surrendered his medical license the following month without contesting the Medical Board's allegations.
Ross was forced to confront the truth: he had tried and failed in rehab. His addiction had consumed everything, and he seemed powerless to fight it.
At that low point in his life, Ross said three people gave him the strength to try again: his three young sons.
“It actually took me losing custody of my kids before I realized I had to clean up my act,” he recalled.
Ross committed to sobriety, and stayed with the program. He started law school assuming he’d need a new career.
On the path to recovery, he asked the Medical Board to reinstate his license. The Board denied his request so he appealed.
“They don’t give it back to you very readily,” he said. “You have to prove that you've changed your life around.”
Ross submitted to random drug and alcohol testing several times a month, without failure and in 2014 he regained custody of his young children. In September 2018, the Medical Board, impressed with his proven commitment to stay sober, gave Ross another chance.
The Board reinstated Ross’s license but with restrictions. He doesn’t have his DEA permit and can’t prescribe Vicodin and other painkillers for his patients. He instead associates with a colleague who prescribes those medications for Ross’s surgical patients.
Ross is now performing hair transplant surgeries at his office in La Mesa.
He says proudly that he hasn't used drugs in eight years and hasn’t had a sip of alcohol for five years.
“I became a much better father and son and friend to people and, I think, a much better doctor,” he reflects.
“A doctor should be held to a higher standard. It’s embarrassing, but you shouldn’t make mistakes like that if you are in a profession when you are dealing with people's health.”
Next month, Ross will get his law degree. But it will be more a symbol of his success in overcoming the challenge of addiction, than a new professional path.
Ross said he’ll keep practicing medicine, helping patients, and inspiring others still struggling with addiction.
“The more people I can talk to about it and educate about it, the better,” Ross said. “If I can help one person overcome and turn their life around, it's worth it.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: In 2014, NBC 7 reported on several local doctors accused of malpractice, unprofessional conduct and other wrong doing, by the state Medical Board. Dr. Ross was one of those physicians, and a story regarding him correctly noted that he had surrendered his medical license. Ross recently contacted NBC 7, explaining that his license had been reinstated (with restrictions), and that he was sober and once again treating patients. Ross asked for the removal of the digital version of that story, which conflicts with NBC 7’s editorial guidelines. NBC 7 did, however, agree to update that report with an editor’s note, and also decided to share his current story with our viewers and readers.