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An election that erased a stigma

March 1, 2007
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Donald J. Kurth, MD, has been arrested, stabbed, mired in homelessness, accused of hiding from a checkered past—in short, branded with just about every label society revels in affixing to the addict.

Today, Kurth is greeted with a somewhat different title: Mayor.

“I consider myself extremely fortunate,” says Kurth, 57, the newly elected mayor of Rancho Cucamonga, California. “I'm not so different from many people who never had a chance to be in a treatment environment.”

Kurth's medical career alone reflects the remarkable transformation he has undergone. He first gravitated to emergency medicine, and thinks it was because ER doctors weren't on call after their shift ended, which made it easier to end the day drinking. Today, the past president of the California Society of Addiction Medicine devotes his medical work to helping addicts and to seeking official recognition for addiction medicine as a certified specialty.

But it is Kurth's political odyssey that perhaps has done the most to erase stereotypes about addiction and the lives it suffocates. He had been a respected physician in his California community for more than a decade when he pursued a City Council seat in the mid-1990s. He says that during a candidate forum in that campaign, his opponent invited in a former girlfriend of Kurth's who publicly revealed his arrest history dating to a heroin addiction in the 1960s.

The ensuing media coverage essentially doomed his council candidacy, but something interesting happened in the aftermath of the publicity. “Everyone started to call me, asking if I could help someone in their family, asking me if I could get their son into treatment,” he recalls.

In 2002, despite how the earlier campaign had ended, Kurth was asked to fill a vacant City Council seat, but then he lost an election bid two years later. Last year, political leaders again asked Kurth to step in, this time to run for mayor against a 12-year incumbent who often had run unopposed for re-election. After being told by some consultants that he had no money, no momentum, and no chance, he celebrated a narrow victory last fall to become mayor of the affluent community of 170,000 located between Los Angeles and Palm Springs.

“Everybody [else] was afraid to lose,” Kurth says.

Treatment experiences

Kurth was living in New York City in his 20s when a judge made a life-changing decision for him: He sent the heroin addict to a treatment center instead of jail. He is grateful about that first treatment experience, even though program staff at the time told him he could beat his heroin addiction but still drink alcohol responsibly. “I took that advice and ran with it,” he says.

Donald j. kurth, md

Donald J. Kurth, MD

Kurth flunked out of multiple colleges, but eventually received his degree and went to medical school. His work as an emergency physician “allowed my alcoholism to blossom,” and he drank heavily in the late 1980s and early ’90s. He had been to some AA meetings in the past but said he never really connected. But after a brief marriage had collapsed, he found himself talking to intake coordinators at various 12-Step treatment centers, trying to find a program that he could attend for only a couple of days so it wouldn't disrupt his work schedule.

He finally contacted a program where a worker told him he could attend for three days and then leave against medical advice. But after a week of detox and continuing treatment at that California facility, Kurth recalls saying to the staff, “Why don't you decide when it's time for me to go home? My decisions haven't been that good lately.”

Kurth completed 31 days of treatment and then attended an AA meeting every day for the next three-and-a-half years. Soon after that period he became chief of addiction medicine at Loma Linda University Behavioral Medicine Center in California.

Challenges remain

It has never been the smoothest path personally or professionally for Kurth. Six months into his recovery from alcoholism, he found out he had colon cancer. “I barely had my fingernails into sobriety at the time,” he says. He received chemotherapy for a year.

He certainly faced discrimination in his political endeavors, but even while some were questioning his fitness for office, others consistently urged him to stay involved. “People saw that I had spunk,” he says.

When he's not performing the ceremonial and voting duties involved with being mayor, he plans to devote much attention to elevating the specialty of addiction medicine and calling for bold policy change in addressing the addict.

“Building more jails to solve addiction problems is like building graveyards to cure AIDS,” Kurth says. “We're not making a dent in the problem.”