Dr. Mike Jensen lost his son, Andrus, to a substance overdose in 2019. Dr. Jensen joins the podcast to share his favorite memories of Andrus and discuss how education can be a powerful tool to support loved ones dealing with substance use.
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Dr. Benjamin Lai: Hello, and welcome to Ending the Opioid Crisis. I’m Dr. Benjamin Lai.
Dr. Holly Geyer: And I’m Dr. Holly Geyer.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: This is a podcast series aimed at getting a deeper understanding of the opioid crisis that has ravaged our country. Today, we’re delighted to have Dr. Mike Jensen with us.
Dr. Jensen is a physician scientist at Mayo Clinic Rochester, who started his training at Mayo Clinic in 1980 and joined the faculty in 1985. Dr. Jensen is married to a retired Mayo Clinic family physician, and they have a daughter who is a veterinarian practicing in Hawaii. Dr. Jensen, nice to have you on the podcast.
Dr. Mike Jensen: Thank you for inviting me.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: Dr. Jensen, thanks for sharing your story today and the story of your son, Andrus. Perhaps to start, can you just tell us a little bit about your son, Andrus?
Dr. Mike Jensen: He lived to be 36. He was a really bright young man who could be incredibly funny and kind, but could also be incredibly difficult. Even before he started having trouble with substance abuse, and it just got more and more unpredictable when he was abusing.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: What is your one of your favorite memories of Andrus?
Dr. Mike Jensen: He and I would go on ski trips together. So, he learned to snowboard when he was grade school-early junior high and, because of that, I learned how to ski. And eventually he and I would go on ski trips together to Colorado and would just have great times together. And then the other memory is driving him to hockey tournaments all over the state of Minnesota. He was a goalie.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: Very, very typical and happy Minnesota upbringing, huh?
Dr. Mike Jensen: Yeah.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: Dr. Jensen, when did you and your family learn that Anders was struggling with substance use disorder?
Dr. Mike Jensen: It was when he was in college. We got a call to go up to see him when he was hospitalized at the University of Minnesota and, the purported reason he was hospitalized was for depression – at least that’s the impression we were given when we were driving up there. And then we got up there and the doctor said, well, we think Andrus should have some – what’s the abbreviation used for substance abuse counseling?
Anyway, there were two letters, and I had no clue what the letters meant, but my wife knew immediately what they were talking about, that he was dealing with alcoholism and substance abuse, and that was the first time that it hit me that there was a real problem.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: Did he open up about his substance use after that episode to you or your wife?
Dr. Mike Jensen: Oh, no, of course not. No, of course not. It’s all, “this is not a big deal” and “don’t worry about it.” And of course, the denial that goes on for quite a while. And not just denial, but anger any time the issue’s brought up that this is a problem.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: So this was about, what, 10-15 years before he passed away?
Dr. Mike Jensen: He would have been 18 or 19.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: Okay. When you learned of this news, how did you and your wife, Teresa, take the news?
Dr. Mike Jensen: First, it was manifest as primarily alcoholism, and the big elephant in the room was that. And although there was some other substance abuse going on, at least in terms of its manifestations and what was happening, that was not as big of an issue because the alcoholism was just horrific. A lot of the initial stuff was all about alcohol abuse.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: Did you offer any help or assistance, or what was your approach?
Dr. Mike Jensen: Yeah. So, he was participating in some of the substance abuse programs up in the Twin Cities, and we would go up on the times when family was invited. We took care of the expenses for him to go to the various rehab facilities that he’d been through, some up in the Twin Cities, the famous one up there – the name escapes me now – and then a couple of hospitalizations at Mayo Rochester. So, we were involved in all of those.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: And when did you learn that opioids were an emerging problem for Andrus?
Dr. Mike Jensen: Well, I think that probably the first clue for me should have been that I had an Achilles tendon repair and they had to put a pin in my heel. The first clue was that the doctor gave me some Tylenol #3 to help with the pain and, when the anesthetic finally woke off, I reached over the bed and took some what I thought was Tylenol #3 and it didn’t touch the pain at all.
And then I come to find out it was just plain Tylenol that my son had substituted my Tylenol #3 for Tylenol. Needless to say, I was not happy camper with that. And then the real time it hit was Andrus was a nurse here at Mayo and was caught diverting Oxycodone from patients and got fired immediately, of course, and I couldn’t believe it.
In fact, I remember when he was hospitalized, I said, “What were you thinking? I mean, you had a good job, a good life.” All he could say was, “I was not thinking.”
Dr. Benjamin Lai: How many years after that initial hospitalization, Mike, from the alcohol did that incident occur with the substituting for Tylenol with codeine with Tylenol?
Dr. Mike Jensen: Probably three or four years.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: Three or four years? Well, throughout this whole journey, this whole last ten to 15 years, has it been a struggle for you and your family?
Dr. Mike Jensen: Oh, yeah. Yeah. There’s two phases, more than two phases. The big phase initially is just anger at the horrible behavior that people manifest when they’re trying to get whatever it is they want to get. They will lie, cheat, steal, whatever it takes to get what they want. And if you’re in their way, that’s just too bad. And so, the very first reaction is anger. It’s, “how could they treat me that way?”
Then the second reaction is: they’re going to die. This is clearly a such a maladaptive behavior. They’re going to die early. Then there’s the hope when they go to treatment. Andrus had actually been sober for a couple of years during nursing school and it was like, oh, thank God, you know, he’s finally turning a corner. It’s an up and down ranging between fear for them dying, to anger for the bad behavior, to hope that there’s actually going to be a future together.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: Had Andrus ever overdosed before he passed away?
Dr. Mike Jensen: Well, he certainly had alcohol poisoning. He drank so much that he was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: As far as you know, had anyone ever talked to him, a health care provider, about opioid use?
Dr. Mike Jensen: Oh, I’m sure that was the hospitalization. I mean, he went right from being fired as a nurse straight into the Generose [building, Mayo Clinic Psychiatric and Psychological Treatment Center], and it was all about opioid use at that time. And so, I’m sure that entire hospitalization was dealing with that issue.
[I was] born in the fifties and grew up in the sixties, where the opioid stuff was…everybody knew it was horrible, it was the worst thing that could happen to somebody. And I was like, “Gee, I can’t believe this is happening to not just Andrus, but other people around here from this.”
And then he told me when it started: he had a very bad injury as a hockey player, as a senior in high school. And this is in the late nineties when people were handing out the opioids like candy for pain and, for him, when he got an opioid for pain, it was like the greatest thing ever. Like he was, “Oh, this must be what it’s like to go to heaven.” So, he had a very different reaction to opioids then than I’ve ever had. When I’ve had to take them, I just feel miserable and itchy. For him, it was, “This is great.” That was the first time when he told me, and he wrote a little journal that he shared with me about, “This is kind of how things got started.”
Dr. Benjamin Lai: As a family member, was it difficult to try to get Andrus help?
Dr. Mike Jensen: I did have to literally drag him down to a psychiatrist at Mayo one summer when we confronted him about his alcohol use. He got so angry and so upset, it actually scared my wife that he was going to be physically violent. And so, the only time I really had to…there were two times. One, that time I had to just drag him down and get him assessed urgently at the psychiatry department.
And then the other time, he’d had another one or two episodes and we had to take him to the county rehab area and drive him there and say, “Look, you’re going to go there. We’re not paying for you to go to Mayo again. You’re going to the county.”
Dr. Benjamin Lai: One of the themes of the book that Dr. Geyer just wrote and published – the Mayo Clinic book on opioids – is interventions, family interventions for patients with a substance use disorder. And you had just mentioned that some of these encounters were rather difficult, that Andrus really was not a willing participant, at least initially. Was that an ongoing thing? How many major interventions did you have or did your family have with Andrus?
Dr. Mike Jensen: At least a dozen, and there were only maybe two where he wasn’t cooperative, wasn’t willing to go along with it and ask for help.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: Was Andrus ever offered medications to treat his substance use disorder?
Dr. Mike Jensen: He was, but it was like Gabapentin and some other things that that they prescribed. And I don’t remember all the ones, but I know that he was offered some medications and saw some of the really good addiction people here that looked after him.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: What about naloxone? Was he ever prescribed, or were you and your family ever prescribed naloxone?
Dr. Mike Jensen: No, no, we weren’t. I mean, he might have been, but we were not. And he was not living with us for the last 5 or 10 years. So, he was engaged and living with his fiancée at the time he died.
Dr. Holly Geyer: The CDC estimates that nearly 2.7 million people in the United States have dealt with Opioid Use Disorder. If you or a loved one are managing opioid use, my book Ending the Crisis can be your guide through addiction. With resources for those struggling with addiction, information about interventions and treatments centers, and much more, this book is a how-to guide to navigate opioid use. Visit the link in the notes of this episode or visit mcpress.mayoclinic.org/opioids to get your copy today.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: How did all of this impact you and your wife and your daughter with repeated interventions and treatment?
Dr. Mike Jensen: All of us at times were extremely frustrated and angry at the behavior, and also fearful because we knew that this was not going to end well. This would have been like 3 years before he died. It was like, I just have to accept that my son is going to die. He’s going back early. And then he seemed to make a change.
He found a job that he loved. He started a business. He was going to go into partnership with a very close friend of his to expand the business, he had just made a bunch of business cards and signs and stuff. And he was so excited about this business opportunity that he was going to do. And it was like, wow, he really turned the corner.
He’s engaged. He loves the little girl that his fiancée’s daughter, and he’s starting a business, and he and I would have long talks on the phone, just great conversations. And so, it was almost like, he’s finally turned the corner…and then I got the call. Andrus was found in the garage by his fiancée, and she was trying to resuscitate him.
And I just oh, you know, he probably is drunk or something like that, but I’m going to go over there anyway. And by the time I’d gotten to the car, my wife called me and said, “He’s dead.”
Dr. Benjamin Lai: I’m so sorry. So, you mentioned that all of these years you thought that perhaps Andrus would die early. When it finally hit you that day, it was still a shock.
Dr. Mike Jensen: Yeah, because it seemed like he had actually turned a corner.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: How are things going for you and your family now?
Dr. Mike Jensen: I think about as well as you could expect. I don’t know why, but it seems like when I think of my son, I think of the good things. I just do not dwell on the bad stuff. I just remember the good times and think about how great it could have been if he had actually lived up to his potential and the stuff we could be doing together today.
But the anger is gone and there’s just a love left.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: What is one of the top one or two qualities about Andrus you’d like to share with our listeners?
Dr. Mike Jensen: He could be very, very insightful and he could, when he was right, be very, very considerate of other people. And he was extremely smart, probably too smart for his own good. He also had impulse control disorder, as I understand a lot of people who get into abuse do. Even as a kid, it’s like, “I need immediate and gratification. I’m not going to invest time in something that’s not going to kind of make me feel better in the next 5 minutes or so.” And I talked to some of the addiction specialist I know they said, “Yeah, that’s a big risk factor for substance abuse is people who have impulse control problems.”
Dr. Benjamin Lai: Well, some of our listeners, Mike, may be struggling with similar things that you and Teresa went through, having a loved one, an adult child who may be struggling with substance use disorder. What are some of the key things that you’d like to share with our listeners?
Dr. Mike Jensen: Get more educated about it. Read the books. There are some charities out there that have some really good [resources]: The Partnership to End Addiction has some good stuff for family members to read about. Get more educated than I was. I’m not convinced that anything I could have done at the later part of his life would have made any difference. But certainly, if you recognize what’s going on with a youngster, that’s clearly the time to intervene and make sure that they get all the help that they can get. Because for Andrus, it just dragged on for like over a decade, and I think the longer it goes, the harder it is to stop. So, being able to recognize signs early, to get it looked into and to get help early is the way to go.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: Has this changed you, Mike, as a physician?
Dr. Mike Jensen: I am way more empathetic with both my patients and their families who are dealing with this. Before that, it was, “This is something that happens to somebody else, and you just have to deal with it and do the best you can as a clinician.” But now when I see those families, I know exactly what they’re going through.
And I think I do a much better job of making sure they know that I really care about them and what they’re going through. I talked to my team. We work as a team. And look, I say, “We just all have to understand this is a horrible thing these people are going through and we don’t need any judgment staff about this at this point in time.”
Dr. Benjamin Lai: I think your story highlights, and you mentioned as well, the fact that the opioid and actually all substances can touch any of us. It knows no boundaries.
Dr. Mike Jensen: Yep.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: For people who work in the health care sector, what is one message you want to convey to other doctors, nurses, counselors and so forth when they encounter somebody with a substance use disorder?
Dr. Mike Jensen: Well, they have to be honest with them and just put a risk it is for them. I mean, there’s no point in sugarcoating any of this. You have to be upfront and say, “Look, this is the problem you’ve got. Don’t deny it. If you deny it, you’re actually putting yourself at worst risk. This is the problem. Here are the options we have to help you and let’s try to get you some help with this.”
I don’t think being accusatory or judgmental is helpful, and I don’t think sweeping it under the rug is helpful. It’s just best to be honest and say, “This is a problem. It could very well kill you. It could devastate your family and your friends. And even if you don’t care about yourself, hopefully you care enough about your loved ones that you at least give it a try.”
Dr. Mike Jensen: I think in general, the health care providers we encountered were incredibly good. I have nothing but good things to say about the providers that tried to help Andrus and us. I couldn’t have asked for more.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: Mike, thank you very much for answering all the questions, for sharing your story.
Dr. Holly Geyer: Thank you so much for taking us through this incredible story, and Dr. Jensen for sharing it as well. Our heart goes out to you and your family for your loss.
Dr. Mike Jensen: Thank you.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: Before we end, Dr. Jensen, is there any final message that you would like to share with us or our listeners?
Dr. Mike Jensen: Yeah. It really, really hurts when you lose a loved one, and it’s easy to feel like you should just give up, but it will get better.
One of the people that I listen to a lot who’s been through a lot, he says: It’s like somebody dropped you in the middle of a desert and it really hurts. And the only way you’re going to get out of there is one step at a time. Have a goal, go forward and look at yourself and say, “Is there anything about this experience that can turn me into a better person? What can I do in honor of the memory of the person I lost that will make me a better person?”
And I think that’s why my wife and I are doing well, because we’re saying we are committed to using this experience to make us better people.
Dr. Benjamin Lai: I think, Mike, all of our listeners have learned a great lesson and it got to a really strong message from you and Andrus’ story. We want to thank you very much for sharing.
That is all from us on today’s episode of Ending the Opioid Crisis. You can check out our website at mcpress.mayoclinic.org/opioids for more episodes of our podcast series and other resources for safe opioid use.
If you or someone you know are struggling with an opioid or another substance use disorder, we recommend speaking with your health care provider or going to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website.
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