A locally renowned heart surgeon pleaded guilty Wednesday of 34 counts of obtaining narcotics by fraud. Dr. William Walker was sentenced to five years of probation under judicial diversion, which means his felony convictions will be wiped from his record if he completes all the requirements of the medical board that is supervising his recovery from a drug addiction.
As Press staff writer Becky Campbell reported in Thursday’s paper, Criminal Court Judge Lynn Brown praised the doctor’s efforts to kick his three-year drug addiction. Walker told the court that there were times when he operated on patients while under the influence of hydrocodone.
Investigators said Walker used three members of his surgical staff — a physician’s assistant, a cardiac nurse and a surgical tech — to get prescriptions filled and return the drugs to him.
Walker has not practiced medicine since he and his subordinates were fired by Mountain States Health Alliance last year. His medical license is still active, but has been placed on restriction.
Walker’s sentence has struck a chord with many of our readers who think the surgeon may have been given preferential treatment. They wonder if the judge would have granted similar judicial diversion to a construction worker who had fraudulently obtained painkillers to feed an addiction that began as a prescription for a back injury he suffered on the job a few years before? Would the court be as lenient with a single mother on TennCare charged with “doctor shopping” for the narcotics she has become addicted to?
We think Brown would have granted judicial diversion to any first-time offender who has made an effort similar to that of Walker’s to cast off the chains of addiction. Brown’s treatment of Walker was compassionate and reasonable, and it is something that should be afforded every first-time, nonviolent drug offender who has taken responsibility for their actions and for their recovery.
Most people who have read of Walker’s case don’t begrudge him a chance to put this sordid chapter of his life behind him. But at the same time, they don’t like to think this is an accommodation granted to only a privileged few. That is a thought that should trouble us all.