In March, Olivia Tomasco’s phone rang and she saw “Palm Springs” on the screen, and her heart skipped a beat. Tomasco, a fourth-year student at the University of North Texas Health Science Center Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, knew the call meant she was invited to spend a life-changing week at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Summer Institute for Medical Students learning about addiction, recovery and much more.
“When I answered the phone and received the news, I was absolutely elated and literally was jumping up and down and turned bright red because I was so excited,” Tomasco said. “My interest in addiction medicine had amplified with each rotation and, even on my OB rotation, I had seen how the disease of addiction affects pregnant women and new mothers. So at that point, my desire to better understand addiction had really grown to a new level.”
The opportunity was competitive. She was one of just 15 medical students selected from over 600 applicants from across the United States, Canada, Europe and the Middle East.
Observing a transformation
Students shadow addiction treatment patients and family program participants to gain extraordinary insight into the dynamics of addiction and the process of healing. Tomasco did not quite know what to expect but found out quickly.
“There were a couple of patients who were fresh out of detox on my first day that were still really struggling to adjust,” she said. “Although medically stable, they were still downtrodden, foggy, and completely emotionally dysregulated and angry. As the days went on, more color returned to their faces, their eyes lit up as they told stories, they were excited to see me whereas I might as well have been invisible to them before, and they felt more like themselves.
“The transformation I saw them go through in just four days is something that will always stick with me and help me visualize the same hope for my future patients.”
The medical students were given classroom instruction, clinical observation and integration into a patient’s life.
“Since health care professionals usually see patients at their worst and not during their recovery, to see these patients on the other side of their use really helped bring my understanding of addiction full circle,” Tomasco said. “I was deeply, deeply moved by how honest, accountable, and upfront the patients were with their patterns of behavior, and it was incredible to hear their stories and to see them on the other side of these very dark times they had gone through.”
Urgent public health issue
The case could be made for substance use disorders as one of the nation’s leading health problems. In 2019, over 70,000 American died from drug overdose, which includes illicit and prescription drugs. The medical students were taught in ways that covered assessment, treatment and recovery.
Tomasco, who is applying to internal medicine residency programs this fall, is a changed person because of this experience and forever grateful for the opportunity.
“I will never practice medicine the same or even be the same human again,” she said. “I learned through my time at Betty Ford that every person, not just those suffering from addiction, carries a bag of rocks. Some peoples’ bags are heavier than others, and some people deal with their bag of rocks in different ways than others. Sometimes because of that bag of rocks, people do not act like themselves, or they turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with the crippling weight of their bag of rocks.
“As a doctor, I will always work to peel away the addiction from the patient and look past it to see the human being equal to me right in front of me.”