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Saving drug addicts should be priority for government, health care leaders

In this Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014 photo, Cody Lewis, a recovering heroin addict, runs his hands through his hair, before speaking about his life and addiction at the Good Samaritan Methodist Church in Addison, Ill.
In this Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014 photo, Cody Lewis, a recovering heroin addict, runs his hands through his hair, before speaking about his life and addiction at the Good Samaritan Methodist Church in Addison, Ill.
Charles Rex Arbogast, Associated Press

My wife and I lost our 33-year-old son to an overdose of heroin on May 12, 2015. Our son, Tennyson, had completed only 60 days of residence drug detoxification and recovery therapy and was released from the care facility at his own direction. Our son died in the bathroom of our home four days later. We found him slumped face down and tried desperately to revive him until paramedics arrived, but we failed. We watched the life of our beloved son slip away before our eyes.

As the Deseret News recently reported (“Utah ranks 5th for overdose deaths,” June 17), Utah’s number of drug overdose deaths is a fact that should awaken all of us to the magnitude of this killer epidemic. The attitudes of many in our society, and the focus of many of our laws, label addiction as “drug abuse.” Though perhaps unintentionally, this label often carries with it the unspoken assumption that addicts should be able to control their drug use with willpower but simply choose not to. Nothing could be further from the truth.

From my experience with an addicted adult son, I draw three conclusions:

1. Health care laws and regulations, both state and federal, fail to appropriately recognize drug addiction as a chronic illness. Too often, people suffering from this disease are released from care when the likelihood of relapse is entirely predictable and the danger the addict is exposed to is extreme. The nature of the disease often robs a person of the rationality that might make healing and survival possible. That was surely our experience with Tennyson.

2. Those closest to addicts — parents, partners and others who love them — may be ill-informed of the specifics of the disease and uneducated about the ways in which they might help. Our health care system as it currently stands seems designed to hinder those who want most to help and to isolate those who most need help. Information was withheld from us that may have saved our son’s life.

3. Our health care laws recognize that people in certain life-threatening circumstances, such as those following a severe accident, are not in a position to make medical decisions for themselves. In these situations, we expect medical professionals to exercise reasonable judgment and take the necessary steps to save lives. We expect they will reach out to families for guidance. An addict may at times be no more capable of making reasonable medical decisions than an unconscious accident victim. The choices our son made were clearly not rational.

No parent should ever have to go through the horror of finding a child — minor or adult — dying from an overdose. I am committed to finding compassionate Utah government and health care leaders who will examine the legal and regulatory framework of health care for addicts. Together, we can find and implement solutions that will help save the lives of people suffering from the terrible disease of drug addiction. I hope many of you will help me.

Dennis Cecchini is an architect and the CEO Emeritus of MHTN Architects in Salt Lake City.