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'The powerful tug of addiction'

Ohio State President Michael V. Drake is still affected decades later by encounters with a patient addicted to heroin. Here, he tells that story in his own words.

Opioid abuse is a great problem on a societal level, so it’s really critical for those of us at Ohio State to try to do what we can to help. There’s a stigma that addiction is a lazy choice, but I think of it as compelling, powerful and really, really challenging.

Somewhere in the back of my mind is a particular patient, a man I met at a young age.

His name was Frank. He was a Vietnam vet hospitalized at the VA medical center in San Francisco. He was 30 or 32 and just had heart valve replacement surgery because he had had a bacterial infection from shooting heroin. I was 23 and going into my third year as a medical student on a hospital rotation. Frank was at death’s door when I met him. He was in the ICU with a dozen tubes going into him and IVs hanging out. He was in almost a comatose state with only a fair chance of survival. But he woke up.

Frank was in the hospital for about a month, and I would see him every day on my rounds. I’d go by after dinner and sit and chat with him. We spent dozens of hours together. Day by day, he got better and better. He was thankful about what a miracle it was that he hadn’t died. We talked clearly about how he couldn’t shoot heroin because he was at an even greater risk for infection. He knew what the consequences would be.

After Frank was discharged, I would see him when he was coming in for an appointment. We’d chat. A year later, I saw him at a bus stop. He had a big smile. He said he had gotten married, and he and his wife were having a baby. He was just sitting in the sun, feeling great. We both felt terrific about that.

Maybe a month later, I was on a hospital rotation. I was standing in a hallway near an elevator when a guy was rolled out of the emergency room on a gurney. It was Frank. I walked up and said, “How are you doing?” He looked up at me and said, “I didn’t make it.” It was almost like he was apologizing to me.

He was whisked off. They took him up to the ICU, and he died a couple days later.

Frank was the person who helped me experience most directly — and understand — the powerful tug of addiction, and how it is overwhelming and can supersede everything else. What I learned from him is that knowing the risk of drug abuse, knowing how bad it is and how you can’t do it, that’s not enough. Addiction is not a casual, careless affliction.

The programs we have at Ohio State are meant to try to break that entire cycle of opioid addiction, to save people who have gone too far and to try to give them another pathway forward. That’s why it requires 11 of our colleges with different approaches. Whatever we can do to help, that’s what we want to do.

— Michael V. Drake, as told to Todd Jones