I took care of my first patient with a heroin overdose when I was a resident physician. I can remember Chris (not his real name) vividly. He was in his early 20s and attending a local college. He lived at home with his parents, who were supporting him while he was in school. Chris had come home from a party obviously having used something and acting quite sleepy. His parents were concerned but didn’t want to get him in trouble, so they asked advice from a neighbor who had some medical training. The neighbor suggested that the parents simply watch him overnight and give him time to wake up.
Chris’ parents took turns staying up to make to make sure he was okay, checking to make sure he was breathing. Unfortunately, what they didn’t know was that although Chris was breathing some, he wasn’t breathing quite enough. Carbon dioxide built up in his system and keep him sleeping with a gradually slower respiratory rate. Eventually, he stopped breathing. His parents called 911 but by the time they had arrived, Chris’ brain had been deprived of oxygen for too long. The paramedics were able to revive his body, but his mind was gone.
Over the course of several weeks, I watched as these grieving parents struggled with how to cope with this new reality. At first, they didn’t believe it was true. They sat at his bedside convinced that Chris was going to wake up, watching every twitch and believing these were purposeful. Then, they became angry. They would come in and shout at the medical staff that we should be doing things differently, that we weren’t providing all the care that we could. They researched things on the internet and brought in ideas they had. They began bargaining for his life. If only they did this one specific thing, wouldn’t that bring him back?
I never got to see this family reach the acceptance stage of grief. As a parent, I can’t imagine how long that would take. I am not sure I would ever get there with one of my children.
This was many years ago, but we know that the heroin epidemic has gotten exponentially worse. Heroin kills more people than AIDs did at the height of 1980s epidemic. It does not discriminate and touches all of our schools and communities. Ohio ranks highest in the nation in terms of heroin overdoses. This is one statistic where we do not want to be ‘the best.’
Addiction leads to biochemical changes in the brain. This is not something that one can simply will away. The success rate for beating addiction without medical therapy is only 7%. This is biology, not personal strength or individual choice. We must be smarter and ensure access to appropriate treatments to protect our families and our communities.