We WILL Prevail

Every year, medical students hold a memorial service to honor the cadavers they have studied in anatomy class. Families who donated bodies to the school are invited to attend or participate. At the 2014 service, a father who donated his 24-year-old son’s body after he died of a drug overdose addressed the students and faculty gathered for the service. The remarks he delivered are below.

By Bill Williams

We are here today to celebrate your good work—and the life of our son, brother, nephew, uncle, and friend: William Head Williams. We are particularly grateful that William’s sister, Elizabeth Hope Williams, and 7-week-old niece (who will only know him through story and photographs), Josephine Hope Anderes, made the trip from Chicago to be with us.

Nearly 80 years ago Josephine’s great, great uncle, Brockie, died from a disease which would have been cured by penicillin a few short years later. Nearly 60 years ago Josephine’s great uncle, Tony, died from polio, in 1955, shortly after the announcement of the Salk vaccine.

Josephine’s uncle, William, died from substance use disorder, from an accidental heroin overdose, in 2012. At William’s memorial service his mother, sister, and I made the following pledge: “We promise to do everything in our power to educate and inform people about drug abuse and its prevention, to provide ever more enlightened treatment for addicts, to help make treatment options for addicts more readily available, and to remove the stain of shame surrounding this disease.” 

Part of honoring that pledge brought William to you. Part of honoring that pledge brings us to you today. William was a peer of yours, just turned 24 when he died. William was but one of the victims of the plague of our time: opiate addiction. We are, indeed, in the midst of an epidemic. Data, like much else in the treatment of substance use disorder, are slow to arrive. However, we do know that overall, annual overdose deaths from pills and heroin now exceed automobile deaths in this country. Every day, 105 people die of drug and alcohol overdoses in this country. While the latest data are from 2010, it is most likely that the number of drug deaths in 2014 exceeds the number of deaths at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

As you continue forward in your careers—professors, practitioners, and students alike—we urge you to consider the following, our hope for the future Josephine will live in: 

  • A time when an individual can say, “I have a substance use disorder” without judgment or censure. When family members can stand beside the afflicted and say without shame and stigma “…and we are all getting counseling and support to aid in our loved one’s recovery.”
  • A time when substance use disorder is recognized by laymen and professionals alike as a brain disease.
  • A time when research for substance use disorder will be on a par with that for heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
  • A time when people with substance abuse disorder are treated with the same compassion and understanding, treated with the same urgency, accorded the same dignity, as any other patient with any other medical or surgical need.
  • A time when physicians, not health insurers, practice addiction medicine, when physicians, not actuaries, determine the best course of treatment.
  • A time, not in the future, but now, when physicians are trained to recognize and treat substance use disorder in medical school with the same rigor given to any other disease.
  • A time when physicians in any specialty can recognize, treat, or refer patients to a proper source of treatment.
  • A time when there are sufficient numbers of physicians board-certified in addiction medicine.
  • A time when opioid prescriptions are written responsibly and properly controlled.
  • A time when we stop pretending will power is a cure for a neurological problem. Will power needs to be exercised, not by the afflicted but by policymakers who can help change the course of this epidemic.

23.5 million Americans suffer from substance use disorder. Currently a mere 10 percent are properly diagnosed and treated. 100 million family members also share in this family disease. Doubtless some of you are among that 100 million. It is not inconceivable that 10 percent of you, as in the population at large, will have a personal battle with this disease.

We promise to do our part to engage insurers and lawmakers vigorously and relentlessly until they have done their part. Just last Friday we spoke before a Congressional caucus with much the same message we share with you today, encouraging them to embrace rapid change. We ask you, as scientists and healers, to think seriously about what you can do, now and in the tomorrows to come. That is work we cannot do. We leave it to you. We’ll share with you the burden of removing shame and stigma from this disease. 

This is our hope. A hope that early in baby Josephine’s life, another disease can be overcome by the courage, imagination, and talent you all share. A hope that will live in our lives and yours, not by name alone, but by action.

In another time, in a better era, William might have entered the College of Physicians and Surgeons with you. Not as a cadaver, but as a gifted and talented young man, prepared as you are, to serve others.

We ask you as a body to summon the will power to make these hopes and possibilities realities.

We WILL prevail. 

Thank you.