James Kurczewski hasn’t always been sure that his life is worth the struggle, that the depression and anxiety he feels are surmountable, that he means anything to anyone at all. It’s why, he says, he spent the past 17 years self-medicating with opioids, cocaine and other drugs. It’s why a year ago, he says, he decided to take his own life.
But a recent gesture by the WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital staff showed him that his journey and his life matter to others.
The staff helped James, in the hospital for treatment of a systemic infection, celebrate one year of sobriety and one year since that awful day that he almost died by suicide. With balloons, signs, hand-written messages and individual visits, hospital staff encouraged him to be proud of his recovery and to keep going.
“That showed me how much I’m worth. People are showing me that they care. I am worth something,” James said. “That other people are recognizing this and showing this, it’s truly incredible. It was genuine. It was just amazing.”
James first ended up at WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital one year ago, after he intentionally overdosed on fentanyl, following almost two decades of drug use that started after the death of his father. He felt lost for a time and then, coincidentally, had to undergo some surgery. He found the pain medicine helped with his physical pain and numbed his emotional pain. He progressed to using cocaine and other drugs. He had a loving family and friends, but he felt empty.
“I was functioning,” he said. “I paid my bills. I had an apartment. A friend said, ‘I think you have a problem.’ I would stop but then start up again. I was self-medicating my depression and anxiety. I knew I had a problem for the longest time. I just didn’t care. Drugs were the only thing that helped.”
Eventually, it became too much. “The life I lived was no life at all. It is work, every day, when you are living that life,” James said. “It is just too hard.”
When he ended up at WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital after his overdose, the staff brought a member of a local recovery team, the RASE Project, to his bedside, which is part of a “warm handoff” program to help patients get into treatment. A hospital social worker helped James to find a dual-diagnosis rehabilitation program that offered treatment for his drug use and his mental health issues. He was ready.
“You gotta want it,” James said. “I didn’t care enough to want it before. You have to know your worth. That was my biggest thing.”
Early this fall, as James continued in his recovery, he started feeling physically ill with a fever and body aches. James, who is diabetic, had an internal infection that became a blood infection. He ended up in the hospital for more than a month.
Staff take a “know me” approach toward patients, said Andrea Sauder, a WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital nurse, talking to them and asking questions so they understand a patient’s background, interests and life. Staff want patients to feel understood and recognized for the whole person that they are, not just the person in the bed receiving treatment.
In talking with James, staff learned that he was about to note a year of sobriety. Sauder and hospitalist Pamela Taffera-Deihl, D.O., put their heads together and decided to make it a special day.
“On Sept. 22, they all came in with a sign that said, ‘Happy One Year Sober,’ “ James said. “They all signed it, nurses, nursing assistants. The doctor brought me balloons. They all clapped.”
Staff brought James a cup of special coffee that he likes and dropped in throughout the day, to congratulate and encourage him. A nurse even shared her own recovery journey, noting she was 5 years and 6 months sober. “That really touched me,” James said. “She was showing, ‘I have been through this battle too.’ It gives me more hope, genuine hope.”
“I couldn’t help but cry,” James said. “Nobody has really gone out of their way to do this for me before. It’s hard to put it into words how grateful and thankful I was and still am for what they did.”