Dr. Charles Walton: Saving Lives With Medicine and Presence

Reading time: 10 minutes, 2000 words

I made the 30-minute drive at 8am. I hadn’t seen that side of day in a while—the blanket of dew, the sense of freshness, the shadows on retreat from the rising sun. Surely this must mean I’m committed, I told myself. I had complained about having to wake up so early, but the clinic reminded me they closed their doors promptly. I thought it was some cruel trick—a test to see whether an addict was ready to change.

I pulled up in my BMW, eyeing the smokers in their sweatpants and flannels as they malingered in the parking lot. I cringed to resort to such lows. I’m not like these people, I thought. I’m not a junkie.

“Are you here about methadone?” the clerk asked, as I approached the front desk. God no. I've heard about that shit.

“I’m here about the new drug, Suboxone,” I said.

“It’s expensive,” she replied. “And we’re only allowed to take on 30 patients, as the drug is still in trial phase. You’ll need to go through an assessment.”

“That’s fine,” I managed, still half asleep.

An hour later I was sitting down with the doctor, a kind man, his demeanor catching me off guard; he was graceful even, and smiled a lot. 

Instead of being 'processed,' we talked. He explained how I was to use this new drug, mingling comforting small talk with medical terminology. And he expressed hope for me, something my friends and family had understandably let dwindle. I thanked him and shook his hand, searching for his name. “It’s Dr. Walton,” he said, sensing my gaze. “But a lot of the patients call me Doc.” Then he commented on my luck in having sought help before resorting to the ‘hard stuff.’ (I was using only OxyContin at the time.) I nodded in agreement as I left with America's new miracle cure and a tinge of hope. I was supposed to go back the next morning to be assessed and get a refill. But I never returned.

That was 2003. Four years later I would meet Dr. Walton again, at a different clinic, and by then I was on the hard stuff—heroin. I was also taking methadone, a definite help, but not without its own set of side-effects. And yes, I was a junkie. Dr. Walton soon transferred, and I continued in my zombie-like state for another four years.

Then, in June of 2011, my pride having vanished along with my possessions, I hunted down the man who had impressed me most during my eight year struggle for sobriety. And with the unconventional help of Doc (and others), four months later I was clean of opiates, and I've remained clean since.

When I first had the thought of interviewing community exemplars, Dr. Walton immediately came to mind. He has what I can only describe as a certain aura, and it can often be seen in the interactions with his patients. Instead of begrudging their treatment, they smile and joke and laugh with him. But it's not all good times; addiction is a war field marked as much by isolation and casualty as stories of hope. It is amidst this storm that Doc brings not only medical expertise, but a calming presence, and I wanted to better understand that quality. So I tracked him down, and after a week of phone tag we finally made arrangements for an interview.

Dr. Charles Walton began his medical career working in anesthesiology at LDS hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. While there, he developed an interest in the psychology of pain, and specifically how certain anesthetics affect psychology. But his interest was held off by changing work circumstances.

After 17 years in anesthesiology, Walton began looking at semi-retirement, but wanted to put his skills to use in the community somehow. It was then that he began working at Highland Ridge, an addiction and mental health facility also located in Utah. Through attending the group meetings there, Walton's interest in the psychology of pain was rekindled. That was 22 years ago. He has been working with opiate addicts ever since.

So you've been helping addicts for 22 years. I'm curious, have you ever taken a painkiller yourself?

Yes, I have. I once had a radical appendectomy and was prescribed Percocet and a morphine pump. I can remember laying in the hospital bed after taking my first Percocet and having that euphoric feeling that addicts describe. It was pleasant; I felt warm and fuzzy. It almost had some hallucinatory components. I remember the experience vividly. That was the first time in my life that I think I ever had an opiate. That happened when I had been practicing anesthesia for about ten years. 

Then, after I went to Highland Ridge and heard the stories, I was glad I hadn't taken opiates beyond that surgery, because I think I’ve got the gene—I think I have that piece. And I think people with a genetic propensity can get hooked when they have those experiences.

Speaking of genes, what do you make of the debate regarding whether addiction is a disease or not?

It’s a sad debate.

Addiction is a disease. I think we’ve proven that scientifically. For example, there's familial addiction, there’s no doubt about that. Studies of twins have shown that when separated and living in entirely different environments, both will become addicts. And that was years ago. Now we have actual chromosomal studies that show there are defects in certain areas of the brain. There’s definitely a genetic defect, and yes, it is a disease. It is interesting to me, though, why some people can seemingly overcome addiction, like you.

It is interesting. I’m not sure whether it's genetic or just a matter of being human, but I still have to get high to cope. Now I get high on exercise and nature.

I think that’s true of all addicts. They need to find something that can give them a legitimate, healthy high, as opposed to the chemical they’ve been seeking. I definitely ascribe to the disease concept, though. Fortunately for opioid dependents, we have medications like buprenorphine and methadone, and when used properly, they save lives; they have saved tens of thousands of lives.

Having said that, I don't see how Reckitt, the maker of Suboxone, or even the companies making generic versions, can price these medications so obscenely high.

Do you think they're exploiting people?

Yes, I think they're exploiting people in need. There are a few addicts I’ve worked with who have been able to maintain an income, but the vast majority of opioid addicts, by the time they seek treatment, have lost everything. Family support, jobs, cash, insurance policies, watches and jewelry—it's all gone. Then they come in and we tell them they need about $700 a month for a prescription. Where do people who have lost everything get that kind of money? Even with the competition of generic drugs, prices are going up. These corporations know the population they are marketing to, and I think they could afford to sell these medications for less. It’s too bad, in my mind, that the board of directors at Reckitt don’t say, "You know what, this is a population that really needs help, and it would be a great social value, so we ought to price this just above cost."

What do you make of the war on drugs and decriminalization?

The war on drugs has focused on trying to prevent importation. We need to help the end users who are buying it. If we spent money on treatment, I think the problem with drugs in general would probably dry up. I think the money should go toward helping the user.

And drug use should be decriminalized I think, but I’d like to see severe punishment for manufacturers and pushers. But end users, what are they gonna do? It's addiction. People have no choice but to keep using that drug until they can get some help. Treatment is where our money should go.

In addition to medical treatment, is there any one thing you feel really aids addicts in getting and staying clean?

Absolutely. The primary component to recovery is a spiritual connection of some sort; there needs to be some sort of spiritual awakening. In my experience, the first thing addicts turn their back on when they begin using is God, or a Higher Power. They generally view God—to use the term broadly—as being punitive and judgmental. Addicts feel guilt right from the beginning, so they turn their back on spiritual principles because of fear of judgment and consequence. But that’s the very thing that will provide them with continued strength as they enter recovery. It's some sort of connectedness—to their fellow man, to a Higher Power, to Nature. I think there is a spiritual component to connecting with something greater than oneself. In my opinion, the vast majority of addicts will do better with that kind of connection.

And I should point out, we need to realize that religion and spirituality don’t really have much in common. It has to come down to the individual having the connection. A religion is rather meaningless if you don’t need the support group. I usually make that clear to patients—that there’s a difference, but spirituality is a key component.

Do you feel you bring a spiritual component to your work?

I hope so. I feel pretty passionate about this. There's so much tragedy in this area of work, but there’s so much satisfaction. As long as people stay in treatment, they can do really well. Often it’s lack of money—other times choices—that cause a person to get off track. Then if that connection is lost, people relapse and they're back in a hole. But if you can keep those programs going for them, most people do very well. So my hope is to encourage people to stay in treatment. I know it works if people work it.

How do you cope with the tragedies?

I think it’s always hard. I don’t know if that gets any easier. Ultimately, we have to realize that we can't control what people might choose to do or what circumstances they may have brought upon themselves. We would exhaust our resources if we were trying to save everybody, so we have to be willing to 'let go.'

But we do have a foundation that we are trying to get financed, so that when we have patients really committed to staying in treatment that run into financial problems, we might be able to assist them for 3 to 6 months. That gives me hope that someday we’ll be able to help people more. But just as addicts learn in treatment, I’ve learned that I can't control everything. I just hope we've planted the seed—this is where you can go to get help when you need it again.

Now when there’s death, I just figure there’s a Higher Power in charge and it’s up to us to move on and try to help others. That’s how I cope. It's a spiritual thing: the principle of agency, a willingness to let go, and a belief that God is in charge.*

It is in a quiet, inconspicuous office on a dusty street in Salt Lake City where Dr. Walton performs his humble acts of heroism. When I walked into Doc's office for this interview, the lights were dimmed—to make patients more comfortable, he explained. And that's when it hit me: as much as this man has an interest in the psychology of pain, he wants to ease suffering. That's the feeling Dr. Walton exudes—a sense of compassion, and of presence. He has taken a personal interest and put it to use in service of a community that desperately needs it. His contribution—made up of simple, committed acts and a hopeful attitude—is priceless. How do I know this? Because I'm still alive.

This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Dr. Walton, working alongside other caring medical and mental health professionals, offers his services through Tranquility Place in Salt Lake City, Utah. If interested in helping their efforts, The Beacon Foundation accepts donations of cash, clothing, household items, furniture, etc. to assist eligible patients.