Caring for People Who Use Drugs

“The people who use our program, the people with substance use disorder, they are the first responders. They are the ones saving the lives. We're just providing the tools. They are the true heroes.” – Hansel Tookes III, MD, MPH, Cofounder, IDEA Exchange

In this video, people who use drugs, people in recovery, and harm reduction professionals impart advice to health professionals caring for people who use drugs. In their own words, each describes how compassionate care can serve as a key step to recovery and to fighting the pervasive stigma facing people with substance use disorders.

Caring for People Who Use Drugs

Video length: 4:51


[Dr. Hansel Tookes] People who inject drugs are just as deserving of care and compassion as everyone else, even more so because they've experienced so much trauma and so many hardships in their lives. It's time for them to get a break,

[Voiceover] Here on 7th ave, right under the sun in Miami, Is Florida’s pioneering syringe service program, the IDEA Exchange, where tools like harm reduction, advocacy and compassion are being used to save lives.

At the Intersection: Stories of Research, Compassion, and HIV Services for People who Use Drugs

Caring for People Who Use Drugs

We’ll go inside the IDEA exchange and hear from the harm reduction community at IDEA on how compassionate care can lead to recovery.

[Ken Williams] And so then what has been the difference that you've seen personally from some of the clients coming in, being able to access everything that they need right here?

[Dr. Tookes] Well, one they're happier, and happiness is a big outcome. We're always talking about viral suppression and things like that, but they're happier. Because the stigma is profound in the healthcare system, and one thing that I've wanted to do in terms of stigma it's twofold. So one, I want to protect my patients from the stigma, so I want to keep them here where they will be treated kindly and with the respect they deserve. But then also I want to change the next generation of physicians, to treat them kindly when they go out and they practice. So that's the mission.

[Dr. Eddie Suarez] So if you teach them to have empathy, if you teach them to practice compassion, things that can be taught, the mortality rate of people who inject drugs will decrease, like people who inject drugs will live longer because doctors were actually caring for them

[Brooke Heimann] But people here don't, there's no judgment here, here they don't put you down.

[Frankie Martinez] They just want people to be nice to them, to talk to them, to listen to them. Which is something they don’t get often. Throughout the day, up until they get to us on any specific day, they were probably having the worst day of their life.

[Sarah Wallace] I've never had a primary doctor that cared about me, but Tookes cares about me. I asked him, why did he choose to help heroin addicts? And he said, because he didn't like the unjust.

[Dr. Suarez] Find those with lived experiences. You deliver all your services through them. So for us here at IDEA, we have Arrow. To me, Arrow epitomizes how successful IDEA could be. And so I think that is very meaningful.

[Chetwyn “Arrow” Archer] The IDEA Exchange, if this place wasn't here, I wouldn't be alive. And several hundred other people wouldn't be alive either. Because of this place, I was introduced to Narcan. 

[Voiceover] Narcan (or naloxone) is an emergency medication that can reverse an opioid overdose

[Arrow] I've revived 159 people to this day with Narcan, brought them back from overdose. So because of Narcan, 159 people are out there right now, still living.

[Brooke] We're the people that go through all that stuff. So if you've never been through something like that, or like you're starting to go through something like that, these are the people that could actually help you in doing that.

[Dr. Tookes] I think that our biggest strength is that we've always included people with lived experience in IDEA, Jose de Lemos, may he rest in peace, he was one of my patients, was the man who greeted you as you walked into IDEA. Jose's presence and Carlos Franco, may he also rest in peace, our first two peers, they offered us a level of legitimacy that I don't think we would've had otherwise. So we've really focused in our programming, always having people at the table. So that means not just at the table at IDEA like let me run this by you. I mean, in the ivory tower, in the conference room, discussing the grants, discussing the research, discussing any programmatic things that we are considering.

[Dr. Suarez] So my message to future doctors, current doctors, all that, is to care, to be patient, and to understand that though you get somebody in front of you who you might call an addict at that moment, that addict is connected to a family member, a brother, a loved one. We have to treat the disease as if it is a disease, because that's what we're dealing with.. 

[Brooke] My advice for future doctors is to listen to their patients. We're just trying to get well or feel better, like however that is. 

Dr. Tookes: The people who use our program, the people with substance use disorder, they are the first responders. They are the ones saving the lives. We're just providing the tools. They are the true heroes.

[Sarah] If I could just help one person, then my living is not in vain, baby. Just one. I'm telling you, you can do this.