Alcohol: Our legal and most toxic killer
By Ned Wicker
I was given the privilege of working in a Medical Respiratory Intensive Care Unit of a large, tertiary hospital, filling in for a friend who took a leave of absence to give birth to her first child.
If you’ve never been in an ICU it can be a little overwhelming at times, as patients who are critically ill are in need of constant attention. Other units of the hospital allowed for nurses to service four or five rooms, but in ICR there was never more than two patients assigned to any one RN, and often times only one.
I provided spiritual care to patients with a variety of medical situations. But there was a hidden factor that I had not counted on seeing. Soon after arriving I saw a pattern. Looking through the medical records on the computer system, it was apparent that alcohol has a major player on this unit.
Some people had cancer, some had respiratory ailments, but to my amazement, half to three quarters of the patients on the unit had one startling commonality—alcohol. For some it was alcoholism, for others it was regular use. For others it was alcohol in combination with other drugs, such as cocaine and heroin. But it was always alcohol. Even if the patient had been admitted for a heroin overdose, as was the case with one young woman, her story began with alcohol.
The Patient Care Manager on the unit explained to me that alcohol was such a dangerous and toxic substance. She told me a story about a young man who, as she put it, was a “serious alcoholic,” so much so that when presented with the fact that he would die without a liver transplant, chose to keep drinking rather than change his habits. The doctor told him clearly that without treatment for his alcoholism, he would not be put on the transplant list. The doctor’s statement made no impact. His addicted mind chose death over not drinking. The manager also explained to me that they have had to treat patients for alcohol poisoning before they could attend to other medical issues.
“We get so many suicide attempts and they most always involve alcohol,” she said. “We have to get the alcohol out of their system first before we do anything else. Maybe a patient needs chemotherapy, but they can’t have it with their body full of alcohol. They go through withdrawal and we have to treat that first.”
One young man on the unit was in for more than a month. After about 25 days he finally was able to get up. Every day, three or four times, he and a nurse would do laps around the large unit, pulling is IV tree around with them. He had been intubated (breathing tube) and had a feeding tube. He nearly drank himself to death. The admittance form even said suicide attempt. The staff celebrated every lap he took. They knew how close he had come to eternity.
Another man had to go through detox before receiving chemotherapy. He had been scheduled to come in for a five-day hospital stay to receive the first round of chemo, but when the time came for him to be admitted he was on the tail end of a long bender. His cancer treatment had to wait. His withdrawal was brutal, as is the case with most severe alcohol withdrawals I’ve seen.
Looking at this one, small indicator of the effects of alcohol on healthcare, I came away with a new appreciation for the hidden dangers of alcohol abuse.
Ned Wicker is the Addictions Chaplain at Waukesha Memorial Hospital Lawrence Center
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