What I remember most vividly from that night in the ED is my father’s lifeless face. “It’s this guy again, the elephant,” The ED doctor laughed. “Last time he overdosed, we had to intubate him. We could have sedated an elephant with all the drugs it took to put him to sleep!” This was the second time in less than a month that we had to rush my father to the ED. This time it was from a combination of heroin mixed with fentanyl.
That night it became abundantly clear - my father was no longer the 50-something-year-old patient who was in cardiac arrest. To quote the ED doctor, he was, “The elephant in the room,” and his addiction would have a significant impact on the quality of care he received.
The stigma of addiction
Here’s a little-known secret about the ED: When a patient enters the ED after overdosing on drugs or alcohol, they don’t stand a chance at receiving the proper care and treatment needed to fully recover. The reason? The stigma that society has created around addiction.
This stigma is responsible for millions of lives lost each year. It imposes upon those suffering from addiction, it has consequences, not only for the treatment of the patient in the hospital, but ultimately, impedes the road to recovery.
It’s undeniable that there is an urgent need for improved access to care and continuity of services for those suffering from substance-use disorder in America. More than 70,000 Americans died from drug-involved overdose in 2019 – a 250% increase from two decades ago. Even more alarming, fentanyl overdoses, like the one my father experienced, have increased from roughly 10,000 deaths in 2015, to nearly 40,000 in 2019.
Growing up with a father who suffered from drug and alcohol addiction, I made it my mission in life to not follow in his footsteps, but rather use my past as a path forward and help those suffering from addiction.
The reality of addiction and substance abuse
When my dad wakes up in the ED after an overdose, he is already in heavy withdrawal and looking for a way to get a fix as soon as possible. However, against medical advice, the hospital allows him to leave without informing anyone – not even my brother or myself. Our plan was to immediately put him into a rehab facility, but without any notice of his discharge, he is automatically set up for failure and any chance of a recovery is made even more difficult.
My father is homeless, so the chances of finding him are even more difficult. My brother and I have spent countless nights driving through the streets in search of him, but ultimately, it always ends with him right back in the hospital. With the disease of addiction, there is a serious gap between evidenced-based treatment and practice. It’s a vicious cycle, and it wasn’t until an even more recent overdose that I saw there could be hope in his recovery.
For the first time, my father received treatment in the ED from a telepsychiatrist.
Telemedicine is aiding the fight against addiction and substance abuse
I work for a telemedicine company called VirtualMed Staff where I manage clinical operations and operate the telemedicine programs for hospitals across the United States. One of the best parts of my job is seeing the impact telemedicine and our physicians have on hospitals and the lives of patients. However, despite seeing the impact telemedicine can make daily, I never imagined I would experience the benefits firsthand until they saved my dad’s life.
Telemedicine can transform treatment options for people who suffer with substance abuse by improving the quality and frequency of care for patients. The telepsychiatrist my father saw provided treatment and care unlike anything I have ever experienced. For once in my life, I felt my dad was not seen for being “the elephant in the room,” but was seen for being a human that deserved care and treatment.
Having this psychiatrist evaluate my father gave him a second chance at life and improved his chances of a successful recovery. What makes this moment even more special is that the psychiatrist who treated him wasn’t just any psychiatrist – they were a VirtualMed Staff psychiatrist.
There are moments in life that you cannot explain but allow you the opportunity to see what you are doing is making a positive impact in the world. It is such an honor to know that all my hard work in operating this hospital’s telemedicine program and that the company I work for is the reason my father received another chance at life.
Telemedicine represents a unique opportunity to help tackle the drug crisis in the United States, and a promising solution to a public health crisis. I wanted to share my story in the hopes of starting a conversation around addiction and behavioral health. We must end the stigma around addiction or there will continue to be barriers that impose treatment and a successful recovery. When people with addiction are stigmatized and rejected, especially in healthcare, it only contributes to the vicious cycle that entrenches their disease.
Although my father has chosen to not be part of my life, I hope to be a part of his by improving access to treatment and care, not only for him, but every patient who struggles with addiction and mental health disorders. Telemedicine is aiding in the fight against addiction and substance abuse – and I’m proud to say I’m a part of that fight.