A Grateful Awakening

Recognizing addiction as a disease—and the path to healing

Meet AJ Sheehan, a second-year student at Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine. A 2015 participant in the Summer Institute for Medical Students at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, AJ discusses how his week on campus has forever changed his perceptions about addiction and his understanding of how to most effectively help future patients and their families.

Why did you apply to the Summer Institute for Medical Students program?

Medical students who participated the previous year created an addiction awareness day on our campus. It made me realize how little I knew about a very pervasive disease. We typically have very limited exposure in medical school to diagnosing and treating addiction, even though it’s a disease that crosses all socioeconomic levels, all groups, all patient demographics. I realized that addiction is something I will encounter no matter what medical field I end up in, and I needed to be prepared to do so. The program provided an opportunity to learn about something I wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise.

As a future physician, what was your biggest takeaway from the experience?

That addiction is a disease, not a mistake made by weak-willed people. This is a concept that both the physician and patient really need to understand. It’s essential to separate the disease from the person, just as we would in treating diabetes or heart disease. When a physician discusses addiction as a disease, it removes blame or shame and makes it easier for the patient to open up and talk about his or her situation—and opens them up to the road to recovery.

How has the experience changed the way you will practice medicine in the future?

First of all, I’m better equipped to recognize signs that a patient might be struggling with a substance use disorder. Second, I’m better equipped to have those difficult but necessary conversations with patients about potential alcohol and drug addiction issues. And third, given the current opioid addiction epidemic, I recognize how important it will be for me to counsel patients about ways to manage pain without drugs as well as how to safely and effectively use any pain medications that are administered. As a profession, we need to make sure we are not opening the door to substance abuse by over-prescribing painkillers.

Was there anything about your experience that was unexpected?

I was prepared to learn about addiction and about the patients. What I was not prepared for was how much I was going to learn about myself. My eyes were really opened by the patients who shared their stories and by the counselors who created an environment where it was safe to do that. It was very moving, personally and professionally. The experience changed my whole worldview. Thanks to my time at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation I have become more open, more honest and a more accepting person, and I will always be thankful for that.

Together, we will overcome addiction.

We invite you to learn more about how the power of your giving supports addiction treatment, research and education at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Please call 888-535-9485, email us, or visit our website.

Our Medical and Professional Education programs—made possible through the generosity of donors—equip hundreds of professionals every year with the tools, knowledge and insight to effectively address the disease of addiction.

It’s only because of your commitment and support that we can offer these life-changing lessons in lifesaving care.
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