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Ellen Sousares Ellen Sousares

The Night My Son OD’d in the ER: A Nurse’s Story

Medical staff often treat homeless addicts with indifference or worse. I was no exception. But then my own son showed up in the ER, close to death.

8 Substance

Sadly, I recognized the number on my cellphone. My son was calling from the ER, barely coherent, having overdosed on heroin yet again.

He had just suffered a closer brush with death than any I had witnessed before. He had slipped past respiratory arrest and into cardiovascular collapse. The paramedics had just happened upon him as they were resuscitating another overdose victim in the park. Apparently, the batch of heroin on the street that night was too potent.

When I arrived in the ER, he was still in and out of consciousness. His blood pressure was extremely low, but no one was coming in to check on him.

Finally a doctor stepped in. “Sir! Sir!” he shouted as he shook my son’s shoulder. “Are you ready to leave? It’s time for you to go.”

I stared at the doctor. “How could he possibly be stable enough for discharge?”

“Look. We have people with real problems, like chest pain, in the waiting room,” the doctor said.

Just short of physically grabbing him, I made a demand instead. “You turn around this instant,” I said. “My son almost died. He deserves the same respect and dignity as anyone else who sets foot in this ER.”

I was appalled that a medical professional could treat any patient with such callous disregard. Yet even in the midst of my outrage at this physician, I understood his attitude just a little too well. I, too, had some long-held biases against people who use drugs.

Years ago I worked as a nurse in a busy psychiatric emergency department. Our beds would fill up quickly. When a drug user was admitted, I was just as callous and inhumane as the ER physician who I would later confront in defense of my son.

My thoughts ran the gamut: “Why is he here again? The dope supply on the street must be running dry. Maybe it’s because it’s so cold outside. Probably he’s just looking for ‘three hots and a cot.’”

We even had a name for it: “malingering”—the assumption that homeless “junkies” show up in the emergency room faking symptoms in order to find a place to sleep for the night.

I would try to remain professional. Yet many of the drug users must have sensed my curt, disconnected manner as I reserved my compassion and energy for the patients with real problems such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, problems that they did not bring upon themselves—unlike the junkies, who were just too unmotivated to exercise the willpower to simply quit.

I was appalled that a medical professional could treat any patient with such callous disregard. Yet even in the midst of my outrage, I understood his attitude just a little too well. I, too, had biases against people who use drugs.

Yet even though I had encounters with addicts on a daily basis, what did I really know about their actual lives and struggles?

All that changed the day I learned my 16-year-old son was hooked on heroin. “How could this happen to him? How could this happen in middle-class suburbia? This only happens to other people,” I remember thinking. “What did I do wrong?”

And so the shame and stigma grows. Beyond a treatment center or a 12-step meeting, I was afraid to talk to anyone about my son’s problems.

If I blame and stigmatize myself, I know that no one could possibly shame my son as much as he shames himself.

I see him struggle against the horrid things people say to him on the street, but I also watch him succumb to the jabs as he tells me, “I try not to believe that I’m a piece of shit, but in some ways I guess I am. I guess my whole life is just an example of what not to be.”

I see him sitting disheveled in a coffee shop pretending not to notice the sneers, the gawking, the quickly averted glances of other patrons. He finishes a game of Sudoku he found in a discarded newspaper and on his way out he tosses the paper onto a gawker’s table as if to scream, “I’m not the imbecile you assume I am!”

As my son’s addiction worsened there were multiple failed attempts at treatment in private rehabs. Why couldn’t my son just muster the willpower and stay committed to quitting? It may not have helped that, when he was doing well, private insurance stopped paying after two weeks, because he had already exhausted the 30 days a year allowed for treatment.

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