A Life Broken by Overmedication
In my previous life, I was Dr. Sandy Dettmann, the director of pediatric emergency services at Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I lived in a 6,000 sq. foot, custom-built home in the affluent suburb of Ada, had a gorgeous husband, was mother to five beautiful babies, served as president of my young children’s PTO
By Sandy Dettmann, MD, DABAM
In my previous life, I was Dr. Sandy Dettmann, the director of pediatric emergency services at Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I lived in a 6,000 sq. foot, custom-built home in the affluent suburb of Ada, had a gorgeous husband, was mother to five beautiful babies, served as president of my young children’s PTO and was my daughter’s Girl Scout leader.
It was an idyllic and seemingly perfect life. But it didn’t last.
Chronic illnesses would befall me some years later, rendering me fully disabled. I was crippled with rheumatoid arthritis and had multiple gastrointestinal problems from a repeat Nissan fundoplication operation gone awry, necessitating a complete gastrectomy, leaving me without a stomach. I became a GI cripple, with gastrostomy tubes, jejunostomy tubes and home total parenteral nutrition to sustain my life.
My desperate situation was treated with multiple, powerful, mind-altering medications. These medications were designed to either help me live in peace or die in peace. The medications, namely opiates and benzodiazepines, were prescribed to treat my pain and anxiety, not drugs designed to make me high. I became chemically dependent on them, but I never abused them. These powerful and dangerous medications wiped out my memory and any semblance of a normal life, leaving me vulnerable, easy to take advantage of and completely dependent on my husband for medical decisions and my very life.
My life became a series of hospitalizations, operations, procedures, tubes, bandages, ventilators, medications, emergency department visits, anxiety, depression, desperation and pure madness. The same individual who had been named “Medical Student of the Year” at Butterworth Hospital, who had a brilliant future ahead of her, would ultimately be wheeled out of that same hospital adorned with tubes, abused, abandoned, alone and clinging to her very life.
By 2011, I was bedridden 23 hours a day with care tantamount to hospice care. Going to the hospital became my new norm. Everyone who knew me fully expected me to die. Alone, depressed, anxious and abused, I took an overdose of my prescription medications on January 21, 2011. To this day, I cannot explain my actions. I certainly had the skill set to end my life, and I maintain that was not my intent. However, in my confusion from the multiple mind-altering medications, my desperation about my situation, including my reticence to reveal it, I convinced myself that this “cry for help” would draw attention to the abuse I was suffering in my own home, where I had become isolated from even my closest friends. On that day, the trajectory of my life was forever changed in a way most people would see as tragic, but I see it as life sustaining. It was also the last day I was in my home with my family. Following my “escape,” my body began to heal and my physical ailments suddenly ceased to exist. I stopped taking all of my medications and became healthy.
However, through a series of sinister events, my family abandoned me and left me to die in an empty house. I was ultimately left homeless and eating at shelters while I tried to relearn normal functions of daily living and things like simple math. I was completely alone in the world with a brain that barely functioned, damaged by the effects of the illnesses that had once consumed me. I had danced with death on multiple occasions during those years of chaos, even requiring CPR on one occasion, leaving me with resultant anoxic brain damage, so I was told. Even worse, and harder to recover from, my psyche was devastated by the chronic effects of abuse, depression, anxiety and PTSD from what I had endured.
In summer 2011, while I was still on the streets struggling to simply survive, I was hit with divorce proceedings. I eventually learned my husband had retained a powerful divorce attorney four years prior to filing. My divorce case began with me being painted as a drug addict, due to all the medications I had been prescribed, and crazy, due to my “suicidal ideation.”
In July 2011, I fell into the care of a therapist who would change my life forever. He walked with me over the ensuing years, guided me through the madness and helped me heal my psyche. I began realizing no one cared where I’d been, but rather, they cared where I was now and and where I was going.
Having spent the first 50 years of my life chasing diplomas and awards, raising children and pursuing the American dream, I had never stood still enough to allow God into my life. My life had been one of pleasing others, but not Him. However, on September 16, 2011, that all changed. That was the day faith and science collided in my life, and faith won. I went from thinking that nothing was a “God thing,” to thinking some things were “God things,” to eventually realizing God is involved in everything, good and bad. I began experiencing miracles on a daily basis.
I found new purpose in life and set out to be all God intended me to be. Faced with ongoing allegations of drug abuse and mental health disease in the divorce proceedings, despite multiple evaluations by professionals stating otherwise, I realized how stigmatized and punished those diseases are in our society. So I got to work—God’s work—to help others. I dedicated my life, my career and my passion to caring for and protecting the rights of individuals who had been marginalized, shamed, blamed and even punished in our society for their diseases—alcoholism, drug addiction and mental health disease.
In 2012, I was relicensed to practice medicine, a license that had simply expired in 2008, when no one thought I would live, let alone practice medicine. I began turning to community members for support and love as I rebuilt the life I enjoy today, one soul at a time, always with God’s wisdom and guidance.
And throughout the rebuilding process, I constantly reminded myself that God gives us back everything we lose, and even more, if we follow His guidance. I went from relearning multiplication tables to being board certified in addiction medicine and teaching jobs at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and Grand Valley State University. Today I hold board positions, have a prominent position in my community as a volunteer and community advocate and am a provider of medication-assisted treatment for private citizens and for drug court participants at the very courthouse where my messy divorce played out. I have acquired professional accolades beyond my wildest imagination. I have become the person people turn to with their problems when they themselves have been abandoned, because I know that feeling all too well. I am hungry to help the sick, abused, abandoned and broken. Those individuals have become “my people.” I am on a journey to repair broken lives and families, just as my community, led by a loving God, helped me repair mine.
When I finally stood still enough to feel God’s presence and hear His voice, after 50 years of thinking I could do it on my own, I felt as though I had finally been give the “password” to my calling in life. Although I experienced many defeats and lost everything that meant anything to me—my home, children, money, reputation and nearly my life—I finally understood the promise of eternity and began standing in truth and following God’s direction as I worked to put my life back together. And I found comfort in the blessings I received from God on a daily basis, instead of focusing on the lure of financial compensation for my work and falsely believing money was my “ticket” to being worthy of love. Today I am truly rich, rich with a sense of peace most people have trouble understanding, given the losses I endured.
I spent the first five decades of my life being chased by God, and now I am spending the rest of it chasing Him. I seek to bring others to find Jesus, because I want them to find what I found in Christ.
For those who think there is no God and miracles don’t occur, I invite you to open the door to my life. The mere fact that I am still alive after the trauma and loss I experienced is evidence that speaks for itself. Systematically dismantled, alienated and left to die in an abandoned house in the name of greed, no one thought I would live. By the grace of God, I did. No one thought I would recover from all the mind-altering substances I was prescribed. By the grace of God, I did. No one thought I would speak publicly about allegations rallied against me of substance abuse and mental health disease. By the grace of God, I did. And by His grace, God is using my story to open the door for others to follow my journey and escape their own chemical dependencies and diseases.
Today, I am the CEO and president of The Dettmann Center, P.C., where I use medication-assisted treatment to help people dependent on alcohol and/or drugs. I am a public speaker and community advocate, focused on addressing the opiate epidemic, the largest man-made epidemic in the history of the United States. I am even writing a book to share my story, entitled She Finally Stood Still.
Two days remained etched in my mind: January 21, 2011, the day I nearly died and thought my world was ending, and September 16, 2011, the day I realized my life had only just begun. It may have felt like I had lost my life when I overdosed and was abandoned by my family, but I truly lost my life when I turned it over to God. And through His grace, I started a new life, a better life, a true life centered on the hope and love and grace and mercy of our Savior. And I’m just getting started.
We are in the midst of the largest manmade epidemic in the history of the United States—the opiate epidemic. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), drug overdose deaths are the leading cause of injury death in the U.S. HHS has made prevention, treatment, research and effective responses to rapidly reverse opioid overdoses a top priority to help fight the epidemic.
As healthcare professionals, we are on the front lines of this crisis. Numerous experts say doctor training is key to dealing with the epidemic. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Mirthy sent a letter to millions of healthcare professionals in 2016 calling for a “national movement of clinicians” to help fight the opioid epidemic. In the letter, he wrote, “I know solving this problem will not be easy...But, as clinicians, we have the unique power to help end this epidemic.” He calls for healthcare professionals to educate themselves first, screen patients for substance use disorders and connect them with treatment options and treat it as a chronic illness, not a moral failing.
So what can you do? To start, visit www.turnthetide.org. This website has a variety of resources with treatment options, training tools and more to assist you as you seek to help your patients. Some individual states have laws and regulations requiring continuing education on pain management and opioid use for healthcare professionals. And more states are launching campaigns and monitoring programs to help save lives. CMDA groups in places like New York have gotten involved in training programs to encourage others to learn more.
Dr. Mirthy challenged healthcare professionals, “Years from now, I want us to look back and know...it was our profession that stepped up and led the way. I know we can succeed because health care is more than an occupation to us.” As Christians in healthcare, we also share a burden to seek and save the lost, so we have both a moral responsibility to our patients and a responsibility to our Lord. As it says in Luke 9:2, “And he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (ESV). We have to respond to this epidemic, and we have to respond now. How are you responding?