Growing up in rural East Tennessee, I always thought of Florida as sunny beaches, palm trees swaying in the wind on warm starlit nights, and beautiful crystal blue waters. I remember those dreams always being fulfilled on family trips to places like Destin, Clearwater, and Fort Lauderdale as Florida rarely disappointed. I never dreamed that in my professional career working with healthcare tech companies to develop specialty EHR platforms, that I would come to know those same Florida destinations as havens for countless victims of drug addiction. Addiction numbers that have recently been spiraling out of control.
Starting in 2014, I spent months navigating the hallways, check in areas, and rehab education rooms of several substance abuse treatment centers in South Florida. My job was to become an SME in substance abuse treatment clinical workflows while being an EHR Product Owner. But spending time working on my SME, I was impacted personally by exposure to the countless young souls who’s plight I would come to know all too well. Weekly, over a period of two years, I observed in disbelief as our beautiful and talented youth walked into those very same treatment centers. I came to know that if you looked closely at their faces, what seemed many times like a healthy vibrant young lady, for instance, there was hiding a dark and deeply conflicted sadness and despair. The eyes, the "windows to the soul," always betrayed the real secrets hiding behind the occasional stressed smiles.
Any father with a heart would want to help those who, for all outward appearances, so closely resemble their own children. I remember one encounter vividly, as I sat next to a licensed counselor while a new patient was assessed for their needs in the treatment program. She was, at first appearance, strikingly beautiful but seemingly older than her young age of 19. Her shy, quaint smile hid an anguish that had built for years and laid festering beneath.
This young lady, I’ll call her Anna, had been sexually abused since her first years as a teenager. At 13, her father had bartered her into sex with her uncle to pay for a new set of tires for the dad’s truck. Years of physical and sexual abuse followed until she finally ran away from home. Her mother had died when she was still a child, but the sweetest memories of a loving mom were still there, accompanied by a faded black and white photo that she carried with her at all times.
As a memento of the most sacred type, Anna had a tattoo of her mother, in character as a beautiful angelic being with wings, inked on her wrist. The counselor asked about the tattoo, and Anna’s face softened as she turned over her wrist to give full view of the artwork. “It’s there to cover up the scars from my cuts, but also to always have my mom with me. Isn’t she beautiful?”, Anna said with a soft tone that sliced clean though my soul. “When I go to sleep, I always lay my head on my wrist so I can be close to her. She keeps me safe.”
This child’s torturous upbringing had led her into addiction. She would have to turn to substance abuse to deal with the trauma, and the telling of her story wrenched my heart. Somehow a feeling of shame came over me…shame for not realizing this world had dealt such cruel blows while I remained oblivious…and it was at that moment that I knew I would somehow have to find a way to help, to mitigate the insanity of this world on such young and beautiful souls.
Later, I pondered about the tattoo artist who performed such breathtaking imagery on Anna’s wrist. That artist had helped save her life…I often wondered if they knew the gravity of what they had done. And for Anna, the one thing she could control, the images on her skin, were seemingly lovingly and professionally placed there as a true work of protection. I never had a tattoo, and still don’t to this day, but I have such respect and appreciation for the profession since understanding what that tattoo meant to Anna.
There is a lot of work to be done to help our communities of young, traumatized teenagers and adults. I challenge you to look around and become aware of how you can make a difference. Give of yourself to others….offer strength and guidance and compassion, but most of all offer hope. Anna made it out of addiction, and her story became one of redemption and salvation. May the artist who worked on Anna’s canvas be blessed, and may we all find a way to help the Anna’s of this world who are in such desperate need.