Model stories written by young professionals/students.
A Patient Is a Person, No Matter How Broken
After observing a group of mothers suffering from opioid abuse, a student begins to understand how social labels have ultimately led to unequal medical care and biases.
When I first learned I would be visiting a family clinic to observe a group meeting for moms suffering from opioid addiction, I can genuinely say that I expected to get little out of my time there. Having worked in a clinical outpatient pharmacy for nearly three years, I almost felt as if the women I was about to observe had a reputation to uphold. Known in the pharmacy for attempting to get their narcotic prescriptions early through lying or sheer belligerence, opioid addicts were not the most popular customers. While I could never treat that as a blanket statement, my guess was that most of the moms within the group would be extremely difficult to communicate with.
Likely, the moms there would only be attending meetings in order to have Suboxone prescriptions written. Suboxone is a better substitute for opioids as it helps to alleviate addictions to narcotic medications; however, Suboxone is just as addictive, leading individuals that take the medication to become dependent on it instead. Unfortunately, Suboxone is known as a “problem drug” in my pharmacy for the same reasons opioids often are: patients prescribed to this drug are usually just as difficult to work with as their opioid-abusing counterparts. Needless to say, the fact that these patients were likely taking this substitute instead of an opioid did nothing to change my preconceptions of them.
As I entered the clinic for the first time, the addiction counselor, who I will call Keith, met me at the front desk and led me to his office towards the back of the building. With nothing more than a brief rundown of initial instructions, I was brought to a relatively small room lined with chairs and various inspirational posters and art pieces. Moms participating in the group meeting began to filter in but, to my surprise, very few of them looked like the stereotypically disheveled opioid abusers I often saw at my pharmacy. Many seemed well put together and some even brought their infant children along. Even though the mothers were anywhere from the ages of 25 to 50, all of them seemed very comfortable around each other and talked like old friends would.
At the beginning of the hour, Keith brought in everyone’s attention and began to go around the room for introductions. As he circled the room, Keith pressed each woman to talk more about their current family life and duty as a mother. Enthusiastically sharing their life updates, it became clear that every woman in the room held a massive amount of respect for Keith and saw him as a close friend before seeing him as a counselor. I was surprised to see how much these women seemed to care for their children as they each spoke with a sense of pride when telling Keith of their progress in recovery.
Keith would later describe the meeting to me as more of a healing session than a counseling session, and it was obvious in his execution. Women that felt lost and hopeless were now opening up to Keith and the other group members about their internal struggles and feelings. Without realizing it, the women were ultimately healing each other—Keith was merely the catalyst that pushed the discussion forward. I had never seen someone singlehandedly manage a group of broken individuals with such finesse. The preconceptions I held onto leading up to the meeting had dissipated: these weren’t addicts, they were people.
After about an hour of discussion, the official meeting started to come to an end, but the women continued to talk as Keith handed out their prescriptions. Before long, one woman shifted the conversation to discuss their frustrations with healthcare during their recent pregnancy with many chiming in to share similar experiences. As a future healthcare professional myself, I was curious. Having been exposed to the medical field for a while, I was shocked to hear some of the medical horror stories that were being shared among the women. Providing equal care is something that I personally do not think twice about, yet many of the women sitting next to me were describing how doctors began to treat them worse after learning of their drug addiction. From cold interactions and blunt counseling to even refusing pain medication during one woman’s C-section, it became clear that having an “addict” label attached to your name meant that you were treated as a “problem” rather than a patient. I couldn’t help but feel guilty of this as my pharmacy often views addicts similarly even if it doesn’t affect the care we provide.
While frustrations with specific doctors were vocalized, many of the women also pointed out how helpful Keith’s meetings were. One woman talked about how it felt as if every medical professional was watching her every move for the slightest slip-up and only Keith truly cared. The guilt I had begun to feel only continued. If I hadn’t seen this firsthand would I have ended up the same way? I would like to think otherwise but cannot help but wonder if a lack of exposure is what has caused this disconnect between this group of patients and their healthcare providers.
People suffering from various forms of addiction, not just opioids, may actively be trying to change their lives for the better. Unfortunately, the unequal care that seems evident through the testimonies of these women shows that little is being done to help. Instead of focusing on the bigger picture, labels are causing some providers to turn a seemingly hopeless situation into something even worse. While staff such as Keith are skilled in helping these women gain confidence and fix their lives, the animosity felt towards other healthcare providers made me realize I need to help push for change. I need to help educate my coworkers and peers that a label should never define a patient. Health care providers must start to realize that just because a patient is not “ideal” does not mean that they are any less important.