Door open or door closed? Drawing inspiration from patients in recovery

Patients facing addiction aren’t from another planet – they’re our parents, our siblings, our neighbors, and our friends.
Patients facing addiction aren’t from another planet – they’re our parents, our siblings, our neighbors, and our friends.

I work in a methadone clinic, and it's the best job in the world. It's such a joy to see my patients heal physically, mentally, and spiritually as they recover from heroin addiction. There aren't many other settings where a PA can see a patient at death's door one day, and then 2 weeks later see their extreme and remarkable transformation as they move forward in their recovery. Sometimes it's hard to even recognize them.

The most inspiring aspects of the job are indicative of the decency and humanity of people with addiction – how similar they are to the rest of us who are lucky enough to not face the perils of heroin addiction. I call the first aspect “the door open or closed?” syndrome. Almost all of my patients, regardless of their physical condition, mental status, or level of withdrawal will pause on the way out of my room, turn to me, and ask politely, “Would you like your door open or closed?” This always hits me hard, in a very positive way. Here are patients with so much hard work to do, some facing so many obstacles that would bring most of us to our knees, exhibiting the human kindness that we often take for granted.

Another of my favorite things is observing people's signature. It's often surprising to see how much care, pride, and finesse patients put into their signatures. I've had many patients who are extremely ill from withdrawal, exhausted and hungry from being homeless – without food and other basic necessities – who have beautiful, artistic, and precise, decorative signatures. This is just another reminder of their humanity.

My patients also almost always appreciate my Fisher-Price toy medical kit, on the wall near my exam table. Often, I see very sick patients walking painfully to the table, hunched over with nausea – and when they see the toy medical kit they almost always immediately brighten, pointing to it and saying, “That's so cute!” It always moves me when that occurs.

These are just a few of the many reminders that patients facing heroin addictions aren't from some other planet, but instead are our brothers, sisters, moms, aunts, uncles, and neighbors. Bless them all and the humanity they bring to their challenges. Let's be inspired by this strength as all of us go through our own set of trials and tribulations.   

Jim Anderson, MPAS, PA-C, ATC, DFAAPA, is a physician assistant in Seattle.

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