Doctors saved his hands, and now Joe needs to save himself

Posted at 11:14 PM, Aug 08, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-08 23:14:04-04

SUNSET PARK, Brooklyn — When 30-year-old Joe from Ridgewood, Queens met for the first time with counselor George Rivera at Resource Beacon of Hope in Sunset Park, he was officially signing in for outpatient rehab four days a week

"First of all, we're going to stabilize the addiction," Rivera told the former carpenter, who still has white gauze on both hands, after undergoing emergency surgery on his hands July 21st. "We'll take it one step at a time."

Joe was injecting heroin for three years, after years of addiction to powerful painkillers before that. The needles often went into the tops of his hands.

"I think it's still too soon to say whether you're going to need a skin graft or not," Dr. Jeanne Carey of NYU Lutheran Langone said to Joe, when she examined his hands on the same day he started rehab. "We should set you up to see our plastic surgeon."

But considering what Joe's hands looked like shortly after the operation, when surgeons debrided black, necrotic skin from the tops of both-leaving holes in their wake-they have healed rather remarkably.

"We call that good, healthy red granulation tissue," Dr. Carey observed of Joe's hands, as she noted healthy skin is coming back. "The fact that you're staying clean right now is enabling your body to heal."

Staying clean will be Joe's goal for the rest of his life.

Along with his medical needs, Beacon of Hope will address Joe's emotional state and how that fueled his addiction. He will go to group counseling and individual sessions during his time in rehab.

"This is the induction," Rivera told PIX11. "This is like the army. He's got a schedule. He has to be motivated. He has to want this."

"The addiction is always going to be present," Rivera said. "It's how he handles it."

Rivera was a bit concerned that Joe decided to use a medication called Suboxone for only a short period, during withdrawals, and then decided to continue recovery cold turkey.

"To tell you the truth, it scares me a little," Rivera said. He noted the long-term chances for recovery have generally been better when Suboxone is utilized longer.

But Rivera was impressed with Joe's determination.

Joe had been clean 19 days, as of Tuesday, August 8th, and pointed out that Suboxone is also an opioid that users have to withdraw from. He said he didn't want to deal with another opioid, once he made the decision to stop using heroin.

"I will never touch heroin again," Joe vowed. "I think you have to be ready to quit. It re-wires your brain and it takes time to heal."

"I still get cravings every once in a while," Joe acknowledged. "They only last a couple of minutes."

Still, the experience of going through moderate to severe withdrawals and his body's adjustment to this new phase has left Joe struggling with sleeplessness. He is taking Trazadone, a prescription medicine, to assist with sleep problems.

"Now that I've gotten most of the heroin out of my system, I feel alive again," Joe told PIX11.

But Joe is still reluctant to tell his father, who visited him after his emergency surgery, that he's struggled with heroin addiction.

"I don't want him to look at me differently," Joe said. "I told him I got hurt on the job site and I got a bad infection."

Joe's new extended family will be the counselors and his peers at Resource Beacon of Hope. He also has great support from his girlfriend, a physical therapy aide, whom he lives with.

Joe said he was happy when his appetite started coming back.

"I'm Italian; I like Italian food," Joe said with a smile.