Clarksburg, West Virginia
The mountain town of Clarksburg, West Virginia seemed an ideal place for Dr. Lou Ortenzio to raise his family and set up his practice in 1982. It was small, and they needed good doctors.
Lou says, “I did take good care of people. I really cared about them, and they knew that I cared.”
Affectionately called “Doc O,” Lou embraced his role as a small town doctor, making house calls and working 16-hour days. While he genuinely cared about his patients, something else was driving him.
He explains, “Sometimes there’s a little bit of self-satisfaction in all that, you know, ‘Look what I’ve done. Look-look how much they love me.’ And if at my core I don’t love myself, uh, then I need everyone else to love me to make me – make me feel adequate.”
While he relished the admiration, Lou admits he too often neglected his wife and three children.
He remembers, “When you’re home, you’re paying attention to your beeper or your phone, or you’re running back to the hospital or the emergency room. The children hardly knew who I was. My wife certainly never saw me.”
It went on for years, as Lou worked, sometimes to the point of exhaustion, to meet everyone’s expectations, trying to earn their love.
He says, “I felt like I had to perform at such a high level, be ten feet tall and bulletproof and faster than a speeding locomotive. And trying to make your patients happy, you’re trying to make your pharmaceutical reps happy, you’re trying to make your family happy. There was no one other than me in this whole deal.”
Then in 1988, working late one night, Lou had an excruciating headache. But when over-the-counter meds didn’t help, he reached for something stronger – a Vicodin sample that a pharmaceutical rep had left.
He recalls, “It gave me this tremendous relief of pain and suffering, but also gave me this sense of euphoria that I could do anything. And that just grew and grew and grew.”
As did his addiction. At first, he’d self-medicate for an extra boost of energy.
Lou explains, “When I felt inadequate when I would run out of steam, drugs filled that gap. The other side of that is if-if you think you’re Superman then you think you can do that and control it, that it won’t take over your life.”
Except it did. Within a few years he was using daily, and by the late 90s, he was taking up to forty pills a day, writing fake prescriptions to keep them coming.
“You focus on ‘How do I feel? How do I feel? How do I feel? Do I have any more pills? Let me go write a prescription, let me go fill ‘em at the pharmacy. Let me take four or five of them in the parking lot,’” Lou says.
During that time, Lou’s wife realized he had a drug problem. With their marriage already strained, she took the kids and moved to Pittsburgh, two hours away. They tried to make it work, but ultimately divorced in the early 2000s. By now, even his performance at work was slipping.
He says, “There was pressure coming in from everywhere. I’d failed as a husband, I’d failed as a father, my practice wasn’t going well. And I realized that I could not stop using medication. I couldn’t stop using the opiates. That was the pattern I was stuck in and stuck in and stuck in.”
Unable to see a way out, one night in the fall of 2002, he decided to take the only escape he knew.
“‘I’m going to go in my car, park in my garage at night, close the garage door and run the engine and it’ll all be over,’” Lou remembers.
But the fumes seemed to have no effect.
Lou shares, “I was crying out to God – a God, I really didn’t know or understand saying, ‘God, take me out of this mess. I can’t do this anymore. You’ve gotta do something – take me out.’ But God didn’t take me out.”
But he says God did answer his prayer. The next day a patient in ICU crashed. They saved the patient, but in the chaos, one nurse got Lou’s attention. Her name was Donetta.
He remembers, “She was very calm and serene, I thought, ‘How can she be peaceful and serene at this time, ‘cause I’m a mess?’ I shared with her a little bit about what was going on in my life.”
Donetta prayed for him and invited him to church. After a few Sundays, Lou had a realization: “I had messed up terribly and I needed to be forgiven. And I asked Donetta, ‘How do I be forgiven?’ And she said, ‘You just get forgiven for just asking, that’s how that works.’ And I said, ‘Jesus, you’ve gotta take this. You’ve got to take over in my life, ‘cause I sure can’t do it on my own. I sure can’t run this thing, I’m running into the ground, I’m running myself in the ground, I’m going to be dead,’” Lou says.
But it wasn’t until a few weeks later he decided to give his life over to Jesus and accept His unconditional love. He confided in a patient, who was a Christian, that he hadn’t prayed to accept Jesus.
Lou remembers, “He said, ‘Well, let’s do that right now. Get down on your knees, I’ll get down with you and we’ll pray this prayer.’ And wow, it was extraordinary, you know. I got up off the floor feeling, uh, really legitimately ten feet tall and bulletproof, but only with Jesus, only with that power. Not ‘What would Jesus do?’ It’s ‘What Has Jesus Done?’”
With God’s strength, Lou quit using drugs. He and Donetta grew closer and married in 2004. He did lose his medical license and served community service for the fraudulent prescriptions he wrote. Although eligible to have his license re-instated, he says God showed him a new purpose…
“I was able to take that community service and turn that into ministry to an extent. Use all this to help someone else,” Lou says.
He’s now a ministry leader with Celebrate Recovery and serves as executive director of the Clarksburg Mission, helping those who need shelter, food, and hope in Jesus.
Lou shares, “It doesn’t make any sense how my life ended up like this. It only makes sense in the Kingdom of God. You’ve got to have Jesus Christ as your Savior or it just doesn’t work.”