The night his girlfriend died in his bed of a massive cocaine overdose, Dr. Stan Azen's long affair with drugs finally capsized his life.
The veteran emergency-room physician later was arrested and convicted of possessing cocaine. His $400,000 house was seized under federal anti-drug laws. And he admitted in a public hearing that he was an addict who had abused drugs for 20 years.
Yet Azen managed to cling to his career. He swore off cocaine, enrolled at the Betty Ford Center and passed numerous random drug tests. Meanwhile, he worked at two San Fernando Valley hospitals that serve many low-income people, earning high praise from colleagues.
"He is definitely one of the best ER physicians I have ever known. . . . He is a kind, compassionate physician in the best sense," said Dr. Jonathan Serebrin, emergency-room chief at the Medical Center of North Hollywood, where Azen worked for nine years.
But late last month, nearly four years after his girlfriend's death, the state Medical Board opened trial-like hearings that could cost Azen, 42, his license to practice. The board charges, among other things, that Azen gave his girlfriend cocaine the night she died, that he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol when he tried to resuscitate her and that he continued to buy, sell and use drugs after her death.
Azen denies the allegations. And in an unusual twist, he is drawing vocal support from other doctors who believe he is clean and sober and should be allowed to continue caring for low-income and minority patients in the east San Fernando Valley.
"It seems inappropriate to remove a . . . board-certified, American-trained physician from a population that rarely has access to such quality of care and competence," said Dr. Val Warhaft, who heads the emergency department at Pacifica Hospital of the Valley, a Sun Valley facility that cares for many poor Latinos and where Azen worked until recently.
Azen's case poses a dilemma for the medical board, which must decide how severely to punish an admitted onetime drug abuser who also is seen as a talented physician dedicated to helping a clientele often under-served by medical professionals. The board can revoke Azen's license, suspend it or place him on probation.
Azen says he has not touched drugs in three years and no longer has any desire for them. He insists his years of drug abuse never affected patients. And he is angry that the medical board chose to take disciplinary action against him, rather than place him in a diversion program.
"I never had a malpractice suit. I never had an accusation of drug use at work," he said in an interview. "They had people in diversion that were drunk during operations. There was one doctor who left a twin in (during delivery) while using Demerol. There were people shooting up in their office and seeing patients while impaired. I was convicted of one count of using cocaine at my house."
Since his girlfriend's 1990 death, Azen has been buried beneath an avalanche of legal and personal problems.
His former Westside home and Jeep Cherokee were seized under federal asset forfeiture laws, although the Jeep was later returned.
In March, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration revoked his certificate of registration, a crucial permit for emergency-room physicians to prescribe pain-killing narcotics like codeine.
The DEA said in a written decision that it was "inconsistent with the public interest" to let Azen keep his certificate in light of his lengthy history of drug abuse, including his admitted use of cocaine with his girlfriend on the night she died.
The revocation cost Azen his job at Pacifica Hospital, which he had held since September, 1991. Before that, his arrest and ensuing legal difficulties cost him jobs at the Medical Center of North Hollywood and at Westside Hospital.
In hearings last year that led to loss of his DEA license, Azen, who now lives in Sherman Oaks, testified that he began experimenting with marijuana and cocaine in the 1970s and became "a regular cocaine user" in the 1980s.
A graduate of Loma Linda University medical school, Azen was hired in 1982 in the emergency room at the Medical Center of North Hollywood, where he quickly learned to cope with waves of shootings, stabbings and car-crash victims.
By 1987, he was working up to 90 hours a week, collecting $240,000 a year. And there was a romantic bonus: At the hospital he had met a quiet, young auditor, Donna Lynn Miller, who soon moved in with him.
But with a fat paycheck and a high-stress job, Azen also had developed a serious cocaine habit, according to his DEA testimony.
Sometimes he snorted it. Sometimes he sprinkled it on marijuana cigarettes and smoked it, a combination known in drug circles as "coco puffs."
As his cocaine intake escalated, he tried to ration himself, methodically weighing out half-gram doses on a scale at his home.