Sometimes the most important lessons—the kinds of lessons that have lasting effect on one’s attitude or outlook—occur in the most unlikely of situations. I recently recalled a patient I had the good fortune of working with a number of years ago, while I was still in clinical practice.
I had a busy morning in clinic that day. The schedule did not leave a spare moment for reflection. After a working lunch, I planned to catch up on phone calls and e-mail correspondence. Around 2 p.m., a young woman came to the clinic. She really made me think twice about all the “business” in my life.
Rachel (not her real name) was a 16-year old suffering from a heroin addiction. She wanted help with her third attempt at drug detoxification. What made Rachel so unique to me (keep in mind that I worked for a number of years in very close proximity to a needle exchange program and thus saw many intravenous drug use patients) was the fact that she came to the clinic with her parents. Mr. and Mrs. Smith (again, not their real names) were anything but “typical” patrons at my clinic. They were both in professional careers, lived an upper-middle class lifestyle, and never thought they would find themselves sitting in a community healthcare center. However, they expressed their commitment to Rachel and wanted to help in any way possible.
It is important to mention that injection drug users do not fit a particular profile. Sure, we can stereotype them to the “skid row” image of Hollywood, but there really is no “one size fits all” addict. I saw injection drug users come into the clinic fresh off the streets, and I saw some come straight from their offices. The single caveat that holds them all together is their powerlessness over a drug that has the potential to destroy their lives.
Rachel started using drugs when she was a 13-year old. She never saw herself becoming an addict. It just seemed to happen. Previous attempts at detox and sobriety had all come to naught. Strung out as a 16-year old, her face held the sort of sorrow that one would expect to see on someone many years her senior. Rachel was the victim of a life that she never envisioned nor desired. She was angry and scared. Most of all, she needed help.
I now know that one does not need to be a great thinker or renowned scientist to make a difference in the world. Rachel did not need a marvel of modern medicine. She did not want someone to lecture her about the “deleterious” effects of injection drug use. She really only wanted to get well.
Acute early detox-related treatment for injection drug use is not standardized. Earlier that day, Rachel and her family tried to see their family doctor. That doctor told them not to come, because she would not treat Rachel. They tried going to a doctor recommended by a friend, but again the services they requested were not available. Finally, in desperation, Mrs. Smith phoned the needle exchange program at our clinic. She heard that we had limited resources. She said she wanted to come in anyway.
What Rachel and her family needed was someone who would listen to their concerns, and show them that they were not alone. What they wanted from me was a listening ear and a concerned advocate.
What I learned from this remarkably strong family was that I make a difference just by being present to the suffering of another person. I learned that the “little things” (a smile, the gentle touch of a caring hand, an open heart) comfort the biggest of worries and sorrows. I learned that taking time to care about another means that I need to be present to suffering. Most of all, I learned that life’s most significant lessons come in the most unlikely of ways.
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