Feature: ‘Once in a lifetime’ opportunity

By Alexandra Burza, MMJC'19

This past summer, surrounded by like-minded medical students at a residential substance use treatment centre in Minnesota, Andrew Nguyen, Medicine Class of 2024, heard something transformative. 

Addiction is like owning a baby tiger. Despite the apparent risk, it doesn’t look like much more than a cat. Over time, it’ll grow; but you wouldn’t realize this because it’s happening slowly. You’re too close to it. Someone may come into your life, recognize the danger and ask: why do you have a full-grown tiger in your home?

“You don’t notice the gradual dependency. But someone looking at your life externally will see how much control this disease has in your life. This really allowed me conceptualize just how addiction is separate from the person themselves,” he explained.Andrew Nguyen

Nguyen’s own experience of losing a family member to addiction fuelled his interest in applying to participate in the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s Summer Institute for Medical Students (SIMS).

“The struggles and battling this disease can really influence not only the person that's affected by addiction, but their immediate surroundings. I learned how one event can cause a ripple effect in the whole family.”

Nguyen grew up in Guelph, Ont. He attended McMaster University, earning a Bachelor of Science in Biology and then a Master’s in Global Health, specializing in the global burden of disease. It was during this time that he became interested in psychology and studying addiction.

At the SIMS program, Nguyen took part in a five-day immersive learning experience meant to introduce students to both the mechanisms of addiction – the physiological, psychological and social impacts – as well as the lived experience of substance use and recovery, and a patient-centered approach to holistic treatment. 

Nguyen was partnered with a patient in the final phase of their own treatment program. During this time he was able to build a connection, and follow all courses of his treatment, from group sessions to behavioural therapy.

“Interacting with a patient was a once in a lifetime opportunity, because it’s very rare that people will let you in with such vulnerability,” he said.

Nguyen’s afternoons were spent attending lectures hosted by the centre’s multidisciplinary staff – many of whom had identified having personal experiences with addiction themselves. The sessions were aimed at showing participants how they help patients develop all aspects of their wellness.

Before beginning his medical studies, Nguyen says his understanding of an illness or disease was driven by the common or prototypical case presentations. His instructors at Schulich Medicine expose him to a more patient-centred, individualized approach to understanding disease, one that he came to further appreciate within the context of addiction during his SIMS experience.

“This not only confirmed that addiction can affect anyone, but it's become something that I would like to advocate for in the future,” he shared, adding that he has a strong interest in eventually pursuing psychiatry or addiction medicine.