DENVER – He was considered by many of his colleagues as one of the most accomplished cardiologists in Colorado.
Dr. Phillip Oliva had his work published in dozen of medical journals at the Mayo Clinic and has been recognized around the world for his research. But a dangerous addiction and a battle with mental illness brought down the brilliant doctor.
Dr. Oliva grew up in a small town in New Jersey. He graduated at the top of his class. He eventually went on to Duke Medical School where he graduated with honors in three years.
For many on the outside looking in, Dr. Oliva seemed to have had it all: a house in Aspen, a beautiful family and a successful career. He was the chief of cardiology at Denver Health for 11 years and toured the world giving seminars to other medical professionals. Research is what he lived for. His children say it’s all he cared about.
“He was always pursuing the unknown. He wanted to know why. He always asked why. He had to know,” John Oliva said.
Over the years, Dr. Oliva’s children say he started taking the anti-insomnia medication Ambien. He eventually would take beyond the prescribed amount. He said the pills helped him sleep, but Ambien mixed with alcohol turned into a dangerous addiction.
“Often times, we’d get the phone call from police that ‘your dad is completely unconscious.’ He’d have several pills in his mouth. [It was a] normal routine,” Jules Oliva said.
Dr. Oliva began a downward spiral – losing his houses, money and marriage. His children said he would impersonate doctors and write his own prescriptions to get more Ambien. He was constantly in and out of jail, but the entire time, he was doing research for a book on the heart and how to prevent things like heart disease.
“He didn’t care about prison. He said ‘I’m fine in there.’ He had a place to live and could do his research all day,” John Oliva said.
While Dr. Oliva was in prison, he was working on a book about antioxidants and stem cells for coronary heart disease. When Dr. Oliva was out of prison, he would live in filthy motels along East Colfax Avenue. By day, he would be in the Anschutz Medical campus library doing research for his book. At night, he would take several pills of Ambien mixed with alcohol. Even though he would pass out on the street, the next morning, he was back to his routine of researching in the library.
Dr. Oliva never thought he had a problem. He never believed he hit rock bottom, even when he was living in homeless shelters. His children say a few days before his book was finally published, he was found dead on Valentine’s Day inside a motel on East Colfax Avenue. He died of a heart attack at 74 years old.
“He believed anything could be cured with stem cells, and that was his passion to really set that out so that he could change lives,” John Oliva said.
Dr. Oliva spent a lifetime trying to help save the lives of others, but he was unable to save his own.
“I want him to be remembered for his passion and his quest to learn. I just hope people that are like him find the resources to change because they devastate so many people in their path,” Jules Oliva said.
Dr. Oliva’s latest publication, “Antioxidants and Stem Cells for Coronary Heart Disease” can be purchased on Amazon.com