/ 22 March 2019

A poison by any other name

(John McCann)
(John McCann)


A young man in his 30s came to see me, desperately wanting to save his marriage.

It turned out that his wife had given him an ultimatum that, if he didn’t stop drinking, she was going to leave him.

Her ultimatum came like a blow to his solar plexus. He cried uncontrollably, desperately wanting help to quit his drinking because he didn’t want to lose his family.

An intense counselling session taught him what steps he had to take to combat his cravings and to quit his addiction to alcohol. The counselling session and a programme for him to follow at home helped him to quit without much effort or strain.

It was so rewarding to see him together with his wife a few months later, sober, happy and full of dreams about their future.

About four months later he presented with severe depression. He responded well to treatment, but a month later he developed an unremitting cough and had lost a lot of weight.

He was diagnosed with tuberculosis and put on treatment. He regained his appetite and his strength and all seemed to be well again for the young couple.

Just as he was making a good recovery, I received a call from his wife, who said that her husband was in hospital after having had a stroke and that he had lost his speech.

It emerged that the stroke was caused by a heart valve that was damaged by years of heavy drinking. It would appear that a clot from his damaged valve dislodged, shot to a vessel in the brain and caused the stroke.

The three months of sobriety was too little, too late for this young man, who had made such a remarkable recovery from his addiction to alcohol.

What makes this case so unusual is that it is rare for alcohol to damage one’s organs so soon. I have treated many patients addicted to alcohol, but this is the first time that I came across someone so young ending up with such severe complications from alcohol abuse.

I could not help but think about the damage that alcohol abuse had done, not only to him, but also to his children and wife, especially as they were heading for a bright future after he took the brave step to stop drinking.

As I was writing this story, I got a message from the man’s wife to say that he had suffered another stroke. Then, in the early hours of the morning, I heard that he had died.

I was shocked beyond words, for his poor wife. She was so supportive and full of hope that he would eventually recover.

I remembered the delight in her face when she told me how happy she and her children were after he gave up drinking.

When I called her to convey my condolences, she seemed quite composed, but I knew that the loss hadn’t quite sunk in. I only wished he had sought help much earlier.

I would like to urge anyone who has a problem with drinking to seek help immediately and prevent the risk of getting a major illness, like this young man who died in the prime of his life, leaving his family devastated.

Not even one drink is safe because every drink irreparably damages a few brain cells.

The rising pandemic of alcohol abuse among teenagers around the world is largely a result of advertising that makes alcohol so acceptable and attractive to highly impressionable young people.

Unfortunately, our schools and government departments are not doing enough to educate our children about the dangers of alcohol.

We should debunk the myth that you need a glass of wine or beer to unwind, chill or have fun.

Quite often, just one drink leads to consuming many more, and when that happens a happy party descends into one huge brawl by inebriated people, causing so much heartache to so many and a major strain on our diminishing health resources.

The producers and marketeers of alcohol do not care about the damage their poison is causing to their consumers. They care only that it is bringing in the lolly.

Educating people about the dangers of alcohol, no matter what type, may not end the pandemic but it is a start, one that the whole of civil society must make if we wish to avoid major catastrophes caused by the consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol by people of all ages.

Dr Ellapen Rapiti is a family physician, specialising in child and mental health and addiction counselling