Kirk Foat's life changed forever during a trip with his wife to the Caribbean island of Curaçao in January 2008.
Kirk was off to celebrate his birthday with a local bartender, when he realized something was amiss: the man he thought was a friend drove him to an abandoned restaurant, where a group of unfriendly-looking people were waiting. Kirk managed to escape and scaled a fence, but on the way down a piece of steel impaled Kirk's hand. Losing blood and terrified for his life, he hid in an open cesspool until the men left the area. His hand would become severely infected.
That incident set off a chain of surgeries and medications that left Kirk addicted to opioids for eight years.
Kirk needed four surgeries at the University Hospital to rebuild his hand. He had a morphine pump in the hospital, and was taking opioid pills as prescribed by his pain team. After he was discharged from the hospital his doctor prescribed him a fentanyl patch, and eventually was taking OxyContin and Percocet.
"I didn't really know that taking the medication as prescribed could lead to a physical addiction. It wasn't clear to me how dangerous this medication is, how addictive this medication was or really of the side effects associated with it."
And at first, the medication seemed to make life possible for Kirk.
"Through the beginning of it all, and through many many years of my treatment, I was of the belief that this pain medication was truly helping me. That it was helping me pick up my children, it was helping me work, helping me do hand therapy for a year."
But eventually the side effects of the drug became all too evident. Kirk couldn't sleep, he was moody and his testosterone dropped.
"Your body gets used to the medication, it becomes tolerant to the medication. The only solution seems to be to up your dose. I would wake up with a spike in pain, but there was also a mixture of withdrawal in there as well, so sometimes with pain patients there's a spike in pain, you're thinking it's pain when in fact, it's your body going into withdrawal as well."
'I'm done with this medication'
By last year, Kirk had had enough. He said he told his wife: "I'm done with this medication." But he knew they needed a plan to deal with the pain once he kicked the habit.
He worked with a physiotherapist and a psychologist, who taught him how to deal with pain psychologically. That's when he started his seven-month taper.
Kirk's wife Anna and his two kids were there, through it all.
Anna said people often believe opioid additions are just a street problem, but that, "when he started his taper, it was like what you see in the movies, when people go into withdrawal. Sweating and vomiting and diarrhea and restless leg and anxiety. And just buzzing."
Kirk dropped his dose every couple weeks. Each time he did, he'd need three days in bed to recover. "The worst nausea, the worst aches and pains, and also a big spike in pain.
"There's no quick fix."
Little help getting off prescription opioids
Anna said it was difficult finding information to help her husband kick opioids. "I think there's very little education and information for doctors around de-prescribing. There are lots of details of how to prescribe but I think when we declared that we were going to do this taper, the attitude was kind of a little tepid encouragement to concern about hard this was going to be."
Anna said that's why she and her husband want to talk about their ordeal.
"I know there are other people like Kirk who are just stuck. And I know there are a lot of really caring medical professionals who want to help, but there's not a lot of information on how to help people actually taper."
Today, Kirk deals with his pain through mindful meditation and with the help of his psychologist. And he never takes anything stronger than Tylenol or Ibuprofen.