One year ago on August 5, I found my brother lying on the bathroom floor, head-first in the toilet, actively overdosing on fentanyl. It was one of the most morbid experiences in my life that will forever be engraved into my memory. I can remember so vividly as we pulled him out of the bathroom and began CPR services, while desperately waiting for the paramedics to arrive and assist us further. This period of waiting felt like a lifetime, as every second was uncertain. The next few hours were filled with extreme distress as we were doing everything in our power to keep him alive. When the EMT services finally arrived we were so thankful, but the experience we were met with is something that I do not wish upon any family. The attitude of the paramedics was rude, hostile, and unprofessional as they cracked jokes about my brother’s condition and made implicit stereotypes about the reasons behind his substance use. This was especially difficult for my family — first-generation Indian immigrants — as they were often unable to understand what the EMTs were saying, and took their condescending and inappropriate behavior to be our fault, leaving them feeling ashamed. We needed clarity, support, and grace from the paramedics, but all we were left with was shame and regret for asking for help in the first place.
Thankfully, my brother was revived and is currently in rehabilitation services, healing and growing past his addiction. We’re all still healing from this traumatic event and the events associated with his addiction in general. Reflecting on the event, I replayed it constantly through the lens of someone trying to go into healthcare myself. As future healthcare providers, our sole job is to make sure the patient and their loved ones are comfortable and to never inflict harm, so it was unfortunate witnessing this in my family’s case. The following months were a very confusing time for me. I struggled with processing anything around me, almost as if all of my senses were numb. I ignored the way that I felt by constantly indulging in self-sabotaging habits to distract myself, such as never being at home to witness the tense situations among my family. There were two opposite ends of the spectrum: I was either completely detached from the situation or going down the rabbit hole of blaming myself for not catching my brother’s addiction sooner. As the months wore on, I continued to use unhealthy coping mechanisms. I was ignoring the trauma from the situation altogether, often telling those around me that I was “fine” or it “wasn’t that bad.”
The tipping point occurred when I received a text from a friend that one of our close mutual friends had passed away from a fentanyl overdose. It was like the wound — that I had been trying so hard to heal — was ripped open again, and it led to several episodes of having to reconcile the memories all over again. After a few weeks of letting the same self-destructive coping mechanisms engulf me, I realized what needed to change: I had to do this in a healthy manner to not only ensure that I would heal, but also help my family heal. I started adopting healthy workout routines, caring for myself more, putting myself first in situations that would make me uncomfortable, and speaking up, as well as reading up on how we can help those best who are experiencing addiction.
The impact that this had on my life was sudden. It made me realize how precious life truly is, and that everyone is dealing with things we don’t know about — even a person that you see every day and who might live with you. This allowed me to connect better with my brother as he worked through his rehabilitation and recovery process. It also constantly reminded me to give others grace and remember to always treat others with respect.
I thank God every day that my brother did not pass away and we were able to take steps to ensure that he survived that day. One takeaway that I gained from this experience is that if you believe that someone in your life may be acting differently and it is of concern, you should speak to the individual, try to gain their trust to better help them with their struggles, and simply be there to support them. The biggest takeaway that I had from this situation was that I realized how much more research I needed to do regarding medical emergencies and how rampant they are, not only in my family but also in the general public. It served as a reminder to learn more about CPR and how to provide care in emergent situations. This was something I wished I knew how to do better in my brother’s case. Personally, feeling prepared for these types of situations makes me less anxious and makes it so that I feel as if I can truly handle whatever comes at me.
As a person in the healthcare field, I was aware of the quick steps that must occur when assisting those in dire situations like this. It is imperative that everyone is aware of what to do in the case of an emergency, as well as implement any supplies that may assist in these types of situation, such as keeping naloxone in an accessible place. This was a preventable situation and things that can be prevented should be prevented. I also believe it is important to give yourself grace, whether you are a family member or friend, and to not chastise yourself for not knowing “better” or not knowing “at all.” It’s okay not to know everything; we’re only human and therefore we cannot know everything, but our job is to always try to improve.
During my experience I realized the importance of quality time. Yes, my brother and I were close, but we both lead very busy careers, and looking back, we were truly not connecting during the times we were at home. Seeing each other in passing, eating dinner together, and sitting on our phones in the same room is not actually quality time. At the time, I thought back to how I could have been a better sister and that was to actively spend time with my sibling and truly get to know him, not just asking surface questions while in passing in the kitchen. During the time of his overdose, I realized that I didn’t truly know the person lying unresponsive in the hospital bed in front of me. It was a scary thought: he’s my brother… I should know him, right?
Thoughts of losing my brother made me reflect on the importance of maintaining my familial relationships and always extending a hand to help in growing these relationships further. I thank God every day that he was able to wake up and our relationship as siblings was able to flourish, but unfortunately, not everyone has that option. This time, I wanted to do it right. I wanted to dive deeper. As I put these thoughts and takeaways into action, I built upon our relationship and learned more about him, and found that he is such a wonderful person. From life aspirations to personality traits, I realized that this isn’t the same brother that I grew up playing toys with, but instead, a complete man who I, unfortunately, did not get to know as much as I could have growing up.
Substance use and overdoses are very dire circumstances and we do not always know or understand the circumstances that cause individuals to go down this path. It is important to always focus on what can be controlled and act accordingly; that is how you can help them best. This was something that I experienced in the stigma of the emergency services provided to us. It was unfortunate to see this happening in the field of healthcare, where individuals arrive in vulnerable states and often have trouble trusting others in that state to begin with. As a healthcare provider, we take oaths to always assist patients in their highs and lows, and that was the opposite of what was done in my family’s case. In instances with very high emotional and vulnerable times, a family needs support and guidance for the next step, something that we were not able to receive due to the stigma exhibited by the EMTs. Moving forward, I hope that medical providers and other healthcare professionals can learn from my family’s story to always treat those around you with the utmost respect and kindness in difficult times. Hopefully, the stigma around mental health and substance use decreases and the plans to adjust protocols, laws, and policies improve. This is something that I wish my family had, as well as all those who have been through similar experiences.