On a happy note, the young man in this story is over a year sober, has a job, and building a life. It happens.
Insufficient Alcohol Abuse Treatment Options on Maui
It’s no secret why 2.2 million people visit the island of Maui each year: the beauty, the weather, the recreation. That tourism is supported by a residential population of just 163,000, most of whom work in service industry jobs. And it’s not the locals that are consuming what the Maui county liquor authority reports as $250 million in annual liquor sales. The island is awash in millions of drunk visitors. And the problem cases are all supported by a tiny hospital with an ER staff that sees cases of alcohol poisoning daily. They’re so busy that they’re forced to turn away patients who are not stable enough to be out of a hospital setting. It’s a crisis situation, nothing less.
I’m the founder of Williamsburg House, the first sober house in NYC (in Williamsburg) as well as a long-time practitioner of interventions and crisis management. I know my craft, and I know how to talk to ER nurses, paramedics, police, and judges. I thought I was capable of negotiating any system — I operate a residential sober facility in Brooklyn, for God’s sake — but I have never seen anything like I saw in Maui.
Called in May 2015 to help a man in crisis, I arrived in Maui after a 17-hour journey to find my identified patient, and his harried mother and aunt. They told me a tale of bringing their alcoholic 26-year-old son/nephew to this one hospital on Maui at 6am, only to be turned away with no medication and no referral. In my arrogance, I thought, “The calvary is here, step aside ladies. Maybe go to the spa or take a walk on the beach while I get this young man sober.” What I found was a 26 year old man in acute intoxication, the kind of bone-saturating drunk that you’d see in a cartoonish depiction of alcoholism in a black and white movie. He was incoherent, rambling, and clutching a bottle of Captain Morgan. After a few hours of sparring with him I made the call to 911 to get him admitted to the ER for detox. The Maui police showed up, annoyed, and without compassion. “You should have taken him to rehab before this,” said one of the officers. “Be that as it may, ‘surfer dies of alcohol poisoning in rat hole Maui hotel room, after police left annoyed’ sounds like a shitty headline, wouldn’t you say?” I replied with NYC snark that did nothing to help my cause. Nevertheless, the paramedics did eventually take my client to the ER which started a process of discovery about this island paradise.
Seeking Safe Alcohol Detox
The charge nurse told me that she literally cannot care for the high numbers of cases of alcohol poisoning she sees every single day. She refers most of them to a treatment center that provides detox. But the treatment center told me their next available bed was in July. “July?” I asked incredulously. “He’ll be dead by then.” “More then likely” was the matter of fact response laced with frustration and a spoonful of sadness. Alcohol detox is a very dangerous process and can result in death. There are 88,000 deaths annually chalked up to alcohol and the detox is one of the primary causes. While the culture demonizes heroin use, the truth is, a heroin detox won’t kill you, but an alcohol detox will. So why, on an Island with 2.2 million visitors per year and $250 million in annual liquor sales are services to treat the byproduct of all this fun so abysmal?
With the huge number in liquor sales, a safety net would seem not only feasible but a moral imperative. Maui is likely not unique in this problem. While we focus on other drugs of abuse, and well we should, we seem to lose sight of alcohol. We can do better than this. We must do better than this. Alcoholics are not disposable people. We are not a blight on society who deserve substandard care because we “did it to ourselves”. There was a happy outcome in this case. The family was thrilled when six months after these events, the young son came on time, sober, and appropriately dressed for his sister’s wedding. Sadly, that is an all too rare outcome.