Tennant’s Tenacious, Flamboyant Style : Medical Expertise Puts Him at Front of Anti-Drug War
Forest Tennant seems to have heard the question before, and almost instinctively his lips begin to narrow, his eyelids flutter with exasperation and his brow furls like an off-center Venetian blind.
The 45-year-old physician and West Covina councilman would rather talk about his ongoing battle against drug abuse, a fight that has taken him inside professional sports, inside hundreds of private corporations that seek his counsel and into the lives of thousands of addicts throughout Southern California served by his two dozen clinics each year.
But because Tennant has ruffled so many feathers since he came to the San Gabriel Valley nearly 15 years ago, he also knows he eventually will be asked about his penchant for antagonizing everyone from local political colleagues to the National Football League players’ union.
“I’ve not only ruffled some feathers, I’ve run them over like a steamroller,” Tennant responded without apology. “If I don’t have some adversaries out there, I’m not accomplishing anything.”
A farm boy from Dodge City who worked his way through the University of Kansas Medical School by selling crystal and fine china door-to-door, Tennant is riding at the forefront of the current wave of anti-drug sentiment.
Drug Abuse Adviser
He serves as drug abuse adviser for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the National Football League, as an instructor in drug abuse recognition for the state Department of Justice and the California Highway Patrol, and as a drug consultant for private firms such as Southern Pacific Railroad and Texaco Inc. He has been called as an expert witness in the trials of physicians accused of improperly prescribing drugs to Elvis Presley and Howard Hughes.
Yet, along the way, Tennant has consistently irritated others with his tenacious and flamboyant style, from his apparent reversal on the witness stand during a highly publicized trial involving drug overdoses in Orange County, to clashes with Los Angeles County health officials over the maintenance of his methadone program, to a public feud with Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum over the future of waste-to-energy plants in the San Gabriel Valley.
Most recently, Tennant outraged the National Football League Players’ Assn. by making a remark quoted in a Boston newspaper about drug problems among players on the New England Patriots that was interpreted by the players’ union as a violation of confidentiality.
Union officials will not comment on Tennant’s role because a proposed drug testing program is currently under arbitration, but NFL officials say that Tennant, who has already made four videos dealing with drug problems for the league, will continue to serve as drug adviser regardless of the arbitrator’s conclusions.
“He’s certainly at times unpredictable,” West Covina City Councilwoman Nancy Manners said. “Sometimes he comes off like a bull in a china shop. But then, that’s his style and it’s part of his charm, too.”
Others are less affectionate.
“What motivates an individual like Forest Tennant to suddenly set himself up as the guardian of all things? I don’t know,” said Pete Watson, who has served as a spokesman for the developers of a proposed waste-to-energy incinerator in Irwindale that Tennant vigorously opposes. “He wanted to be the czar. . . . He would have liked to get the whole valley up shouting (his) name.”
Similarly, some fellow physicians say they are concerned that Tennant’s flashy approach and snappy one-liners are sometimes viewed by the public as representative of the entire medical profession.
“He always has a short answer,” said Leon Marder, a physician, associate professor at USC’s medical school and director of drug treatment at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey. “It’s quick, it’s catchy, but it may not be telling the full picture.”
Most colleagues agree, however, that Tennant should be applauded for the quality of medical care he provides, regardless of the headlines that sometimes accompany his public statements.
“Whatever his personality is, his work is what’s really important because he is saving lives,” said Michael Stone, an Orange County physician specializing in chemical dependency. “Forest Tennant . . . makes people well.”
Network of Clinics
Indeed, at the center of everything Tennant does is Community Health Projects Inc., a nonprofit network of two dozen clinics in 15 California cities, including Pomona, Pasadena, Baldwin Park, El Monte, La Puente, Glendora and West Covina.
Founded in 1974, Tennant’s clinics gross $5 million a year and provide low-cost health care to about 2,000 patients a week, about one-third of them for drug problems.
Under a contract with the state Department of Corrections, Community Health Projects administers methadone treatment and drug-abuse services to about 850 parolees from state prisons each year. As drug consultant for the Dodgers, Tennant used his clinics to provide detoxification treatment for former Dodger pitcher Steve Howe.
“I think I look at the drug problem a bit differently,” said Tennant, who as executive director of the clinics earns $70,500 a year. “I see all the people who are already addicted and need help. . . . I’ve seen enough people who are permanently impaired that it could hurt our country economically and hurt our ability to move into the next century.”
Qualified to Lead
Because of his medical expertise and experience with so many “dead end” cases, Tennant believes he is uniquely qualified to help lead the fight against drug abuse.
“It’s great for the Reagans to get up and say, ‘Let’s do something about the drug problem,’ but I don’t know who’s going to do it,” he said. “Only true professional people like myself can do very much with the drug problem.”
Like his parents, who sold Bibles in the Midwest during the Depression, Tennant spends much of his time traveling across the country, sharing his drug-abuse training with sports groups, private corporations and law enforcement organizations.
He estimates that he makes 100 such appearances every year, drawing on one of half a dozen stock presentations, depending on whether he is in a locker room, a board room or a police training center.
Often, Tennant simply tries to teach corporate physicians or team doctors how to recognize symptoms and treat drug abuse. Occasionally, he helps to set up urine testing programs, which he says are an accurate means for identifying drug use and should be used in certain professions and in all contact sports.
Fervent Speaking Style
With a speaking style that has been compared to the fervor of a Southern preacher, his message usually comes through loud and clear.
“He’s a very impressive man to listen to,” said Don Weiss, executive director of the National Football League, who hired Tennant as the league’s drug adviser based in part on a glowing recommendation from the Dodgers. “We feel he’s the man to help make the sport as drug-free as possible.”
In an NFL video, “Don’t Drop the Ball Again,” Tennant walks across a playing field with a pigskin in hand, warning athletes that their teammates who use drugs have “dropped a ball somewhere along the line that they didn’t need to drop.”
To dramatize the message, Tennant performs simple tests on the reflexes and visual reactions of athletes who have used drugs, at one point sticking some cotton in the eye of a drug user who cannot even detect its presence.
“There’s nobody like him,” said Bill Bishop, a special agent and training instructor who under the state attorney general’s office hires Tennant to teach about 1,500 California law enforcement officers every year how to recognize the symptoms of drug use. “Dr. Tennant is really the star of the show.”
Uses Hollywood Tactics
For Tennant, who admits that he sometimes has to “take a lesson right out of Hollywood” to get his message across, the most important factor is results.
“I’m very goal-oriented,” he said. “If it takes flamboyance today, good. If it takes reserved intellect tomorrow, OK. I’m flexible.”
And to those people who think that his zeal is more abrasive than inspiring, Tennant says they simply do not understand what kind of leader it takes to tackle a problem like drugs.
“Those people have never played on a football team,” he said. “They never went into a huddle and said, ‘Who’s going to carry the ball?’ ”
But while Tennant is regarded by many as a superstar in his own field, some critics think that at times it has been Tennant himself who has fumbled the ball.
When he was first elected to the West Covina City Council in 1980, for example, Tennant was quoted in a newspaper story as worrying that the city’s graffiti problem put the community “in danger of becoming another Baldwin Park or Monterey Park.”
Letters of Apology
Although Tennant claims that the comment was taken from a private conversation, then-Mayor Nevin Browne wrote a letter to officials in those two cities apologizing for Tennant’s remark.
“His mouth sometimes went off before his brain was in gear,” Browne recalled, adding that Tennant had to wait until 1985 before his fellow councilmen were willing to appoint him to a one-year term as mayor.
“As long as he was shooting off, as long as he had his foot in hot water and they had to keep bailing him out, they didn’t think he should be the voice in the community representing the council,” Browne said.
Tennant says his five-year wait to become mayor was part of the customary rotation among council members, and that he was merely trying to gain funding for a local graffiti-removal program when his remark was publicized.
“Besides,” Tennant said, “what are we going to do, not go around and call a spade a spade?”
Again, in 1983, Tennant was at the center of controversy because of his apparent reversal on the witness stand during a preliminary hearing for a Huntington Beach physician accused of improperly prescribing medication to drug addicts who later died of overdoses.
Based on Tennant’s Report
At the time, Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Chris Kralick said that he had decided to file 11 involuntary manslaughter charges against Dr. Mark Hopp largely because of a 10-page report written by Tennant, which stated that Hopp was negligent in several incidents that Tennant had analyzed.
But Tennant, who was considered the prosecution’s key witness, seemingly reversed himself on the witness stand by stating that Hopp should not be tried criminally because he had acted in good faith.
In the end, all charges against the physician were dropped and Kralick, who refused to comment on the case when contacted recently, was quoted after the hearing as saying that Tennant did “almost a 180-degree turn from what he had told us before.”
Recalling the incident, Tennant described the prosecutor as “ignorant,” and said that Kralick had never said he would use the report to file manslaughter charges against Hopp.
“They were mad as hell,” Tennant said. Such confrontations, however, barely faze him.
Lesson From Grandfather
As a boy working on his grandfather’s farm in Dodge City, Tennant learned a lesson that he still reflects upon. Part-time laborers had come to help weed the land, and Tennant, not yet 10, was ordered by his grandfather to make sure the job was done right.
“But I don’t want to be a boss,” the young boy said, afraid that the men might not like him if he were not a good leader.
“If you’re telling them to cut weeds, they’re not going to like you anyway,” his grandfather said, “so just get out there and get with it.”
The same holds true for Tennant’s early experiences as a door-to-door salesman.
“It’s paid off handsomely,” he said. “I got used to having people who didn’t like me.”
And, while he says he would prefer to always be congenial and diplomatic, Tennant knows he will rub people the wrong way as long as he feels a mission to help lead the fight against drug abuse.
“If you’re going to be as public as I am,” he said, “that’s life.”
Was an Army Surgeon
Tennant first saw action in that battle as a young--and slightly naive--Army surgeon in 1968, just two years after earning his medical degree from the University of Kansas. On a cold winter day at a U. S. military base in West Germany, Tennant was called into his commander’s office and told to turn his attention to a new epidemic that had been rapidly spreading among the soldiers.
“I want you to do something about the hash problem,” the commander said.
Perplexed, Tennant replied that he thought the mess tent already had been cleaned. “I thought he was talking about potatoes,” Tennant recalled.
Data supplied by those patients, many of whom were regularly smoking hashish, later served as the basis for Tennant’s thesis at the UCLA School of Public Health, where he earned a doctorate in 1972. Of the 5,000 soldiers Tennant eventually examined, he found that most of those with drug problems had three things in common: they smoked cigarettes before the age of 15, they did not go to church and they had rarely been spanked as children.
“Not a whole lot has changed since then,” Tennant said. “And somehow or another you should have known that anyway.”
Heroin Users Treated
As a post-doctoral fellow in the early 1970s, Tennant was appointed director of UCLA’s methadone program (“no one else wanted to do it”) and ended up in a rented West Covina building where he dispensed the drug daily to heroin addicts.
By 1974 he had purchased the clinic for himself. Now an associate professor at UCLA’s School of Public Health, Tennant has used research laboratories at his clinics for the more than 150 scientific studies on chemical dependency and detoxification techniques that he has published over the last decade.
“I have respect and admiration for Forest’s work,” said David Smith, a nationally recognized drug abuse expert and founder of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinics in San Francisco. “He has made substantial contributions to the field.”
But while Community Health Projects’ drug treatments are often praised by fellow physicians, Tennant has had a harder time winning the support of the government health officials who regulate the programs.
A long battle with the county Department of Health Services, for example, ended earlier this year when Community Health Projects canceled its $272,000-a-year contract with the county to provide methadone treatment for indigent heroin addicts.
Tennant, who said he canceled the contract because of excessive paper work requirements, had repeatedly clashed with county health officials whom he accused of too strictly limiting the number of methadone patients his clinics were permitted to treat.
County officials, in turn, had argued that Tennant’ clinics had a history of staffing and billing problems, inadequate medical care and other deficiencies. A memo written in January by Irma Strantz, director of the county drug abuse program, states, “Almost from the inception of the contract, county drug program monitors were hard-pressed to elicit an acceptable level of client services from this agency.”
Tennant also has had problems with the state Department of Health Services, which is conducting an audit of the clinics’ billing procedures to determine if Medi-Cal was billed improperly for services provided to methadone patients.
Bills Are Complex
An audit in 1984-85 by the state resulted in $36,000 in disallowed billings for Community Health Projects. Tennant maintains that with complex, ever-changing regulations it is standard practice to return money to the state for drug services not covered by Medi-Cal.
A spokesman for the state Department of Health Services said he could not comment on the matter because the audit still is being conducted.
Tennant, however, has complained that many of his problems with government bureaucracies are actually political attacks against him. Disputes with county health officials came to a head early this year, he said, because of a feud he was having with Supervisor Pete Schabarum over the construction of waste-to-energy incinerators in the San Gabriel Valley.
“I didn’t find out how bad a drug program I had until I started opposing garbage burners,” Tennant said.
Having helped lead the fight against the Irwindale plant last summer by sending letters to 27 area mayors urging them to oppose the project, Tennant initiated an exchange of letters with Schabarum in January, accusing the supervisor of engaging in a “public charade” of neutrality while actually supporting plans to construct “giant garbage burners.”
Schabarum, who had stated that he would oppose any incinerator that would add to the pollution of the San Gabriel Valley, replied in a letter that Tennant had “trifled with the truth” and had “intentionally misrepresented my position on nearly every occasion.”
Tennant, who had also blamed the supervisor for the tight control over his methadone programs, indicated that he might run against Schabarum as a “last resort.”
A private poll he commissioned this year showing that he could defeat Schabarum was so convincing it “made my mouth drool,” Tennant said, but he added that he chose not to run for the county office because of the time it would take from his work in medicine.
“I know people don’t believe this anymore, but I took the oath to serve and I have a calling toward my profession,” said Tennant, adding that his $600-a-month civic position life is more of a “hobby” than a career.
As it is, Tennant travels frequently, and says he only has time to spend about two days a week visiting with patients, whether for drug problems or general health care.
“I still get a kick out of seeing somebody with a bad back or a sore throat get better,” he said.
Jogs in the Mornings
His typical 15-hour work days are already squeezed pretty tight just to leave time for a 20-minute jog in the morning or an occasional late-night movie with his wife, Miriam.
“No one believes his life,” she said. “It’s top-speed continuously.”
The couple, who celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary earlier this month, live in the enclosed West Covina community of Aspen Village, in a condominium that Miriam describes as “disgustingly neat.” Although Tennant is rarely there, Miriam serves as vice president of VERACT, the clinics’ educational arm, and if they are lucky, their paths sometimes cross while they are at work.
When they do meet, Miriam said, she finds a warm and humorous man whose deep concern sometimes gets expressed in a slightly feisty manner.
“You’re looking at him, chewing you up one side and down the other, and you realize he’s helping you,” she said. “It’s almost as though the angrier he gets, the more you like him.”