‘I couldn’t turn away’

Editorial by Julie Akins, printed in The Medford Tribune, October 24, 2010

Julie Akins is a journalist for NBC 5 News, KOBI TV. She also teaches storytelling for SOU/RVTV and is the author of the book, “Common Miracles; Gifts from a Grateful Universe.”

A few weeks ago I had a hard decision to make: to help a man falling drunk in the street or just drive away. He nearly fell in front of my car as I drove home and kept falling. I couldn’t turn away. So I turned my car around.

That decision changed my view of community and addiction.

I took him to the Ashland ER.The waiting room was busy but we checked in. Rather than have us sit with the others, a nurse came out almost right away. John looked rough; he’d been sleeping on the street and was still intoxicated. The nurse took us to a corner of the room near the door and checked his blood pressure, asked how much he had to drink and noted out loud he had just been there a few days before with a cut hand.

That’s when he handed John a form refusing treatment and instructed him where to sign it. The nurse did not demand he sign it but John was under the impression it would be better. He kept saying the hospital workers were mad at him because he had been there several times before. I suspected he was right.

We struggled out of the hospital. We needed to collect ourselves from what was already becoming a long night.

Looking at him in the darkness, smelling of beer and homelessness, trembling and sick, I couldn’t leave him. I took him home.

In the morning I gave him my son’s clothes that had been abandoned in the closet when he left for college. We hoped to find help for John, who wanted to get well.

Setting out with no understanding of services available, of the brutality of an addiction that drove a person to drink a case of beer a day, or the medicine someone in that condition would need, I had only hope and belief. I figured if a person wanted to get better, then a bridge to sobriety must exist and be accessible.

We did not know that Oregon is near rock bottom for services to help addicts like John — 48th in the nation — and nearly leading in the number of people suffering from addiction, with the fifth-largest population of addicts in the country.

We drove from community clinic to clinic and were turned away.

Not one person offered him water, a restroom, a smile or a ride. He was sweating, shaking and trying. Had I not been driving and cheering him on he would have given up, and I can see why.

We were discouraged when we got to Rogue Valley Medical Center. By now John was in trouble. Others waiting began to stare and one woman rushed her little girl away from us, apparently in fear of his disease spreading.

She may not have realized that an addiction like John’s was already affecting her daughter in countless ways. The number of children born to substance-using mothers is higher in Jackson County than most other communities across the nation, and a recent study on drug and alcohol abuse indicated two-thirds of those unemployed in the county had dabbled with addiction. His type of illness is spreading.

Thanks to RVMC, within a few hours John had begun his treatment and was given a prescription to keep going. His doctor told me the only way to get anything done was to do it. Dee Anne Everson of United Way said she looks for ways to “subvert the system” on a regular basis and promised to call around for housing for John.

As I walked behind him when he left the hospital wearing my son’s khakis and T-shirt, I thought how this young man could be my son. In some way he is the son of everyone, the son who just needs a parent to push him through to the other side of his bad time. I thought about the woman, also in that ER, who told me to leave him to “the people who do that,” and realized that I am the person who does that.

John stayed with our family for seven days. For five years he had not cooked eggs and potatoes, he had not slept in a bed and watched television in pajamas. Now 32, he has lived on the streets since he was 15.

When I dropped him off with the good people at Hope House, he was sure he could do what it took to stay sober. It has now been 21 days, and he recently took a job.

He tells me he wants to pay me back for helping him. What he may not know is that he already has.

He taught me how to be “the person who does that,” who stays next to a friend and claims as a son someone from whom I could not turn away.