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He had the family doctor's touch

March 1, 2010
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Approachable. Collaborative. Down to earth. Committed. In many ways James Mulligan, MD, shattered stereotypes about the “almighty doc,” which is why former boss Ed Diehl of Seabrook House took little time to rattle off that series of praiseworthy adjectives to describe his facility's former medical director.

When we learned that Mulligan retired from field service as of Jan. 1, we were delighted to add him to our list of 2010 Outstanding Clinicians Award winners (the other three winners were profiled in the January/February issue). The award to Mulligan was formally announced on Feb. 22 at the SECAD '10 conference in Nashville, Tennessee.

Ironically, as is the case with many of Mulligan's contemporaries in medicine, a full understanding of the plight of the addict didn't come early in this physician's career. He describes the extent of addiction-related information he received in his initial medical training as “zero, zip.” Even the experience of losing a brother to addiction at a young age had left him and his family with numerous questions.

Mulligan would build his career in family practice in Pennsylvania, and eventually would gain experience working with addicts in inner-city programs and would obtain his American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) certification in the early 1990s. By the time he arrived at Seabrook House in 2001, he had become adept at translating the science of addiction to a patient and family audience.

“He came on board with an excited commitment to the science of addiction,” Diehl recalls. “Jim had mastered the brain disease information that explains so much about what we treat today.”

A factor that attracted Mulligan to the medical director's job from the outset was Seabrook's groundbreaking work in treatment of addicted mothers. It was not easy to find a place where a woman who had given up her children could be reunited with them in the treatment setting after showing signs of progress-it still isn't.

Now 66, Mulligan firmly believes that addiction constitutes a physiologic issue in the brain, and at the same time he strongly adheres to the 12-Step approach to treatment. He says of the client's perspective on AA and its brethren, “You don't have to like it, but in the first 90 days when you're going every day you're a little more likely not to pick up a substance for that 24 hours. And you may even start liking the people you're going to meetings with.”

He says patients with whom he worked came to appreciate the information they learned in his science-based lectures. “Patients like to learn the characteristics of this illness. They'd thank me and say that it did feel like that.”

Diehl says Mulligan made a significant impact on Seabrook's family program. He often was accompanied in his talks by his wife Terri, a registered nurse who Diehl says also served as Seabrook's massage therapist.

As a staff colleague, Mulligan was credited with being a consensus-builder and never an autocrat, according to Seabrook's chief administrator. “His way was to be an opinion in a discussion, not to be the overbearing point of view to drown out other ideas,” Diehl says.

Diehl believes most of the top addiction treatment centers are looking for this kind of presence from a caring and informed physician in their facilities. As of press time for this issue, Seabrook still had not named Mulligan's replacement-it wisely was being extremely selective.

Gary A. Enos, Editor Addiction Professional 2010 March-April;8(2):6