Inside Track: Physician rebounds to restart career
Addiction specialist Sandy Dettmann turns life around after chronic illnesses had her living out of her car, struggling for her life.
Just a little more than five years ago, Dr. Sandy Dettmann was living out of her car, eating her meals at Mel Trotter Ministries and re-learning her multiplication tables.
In a previous life, Dettmann had been a successful physician at Butterworth Hospital. She had received her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and her medical degree from Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, where she initially studied to be a surgeon. She quit that track in the third year of her residency at Butterworth, switching to a three-year residency in emergency medicine.
After a two-year fellowship in emergency pediatric medicine at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, Dettmann returned to Butterworth, where she eventually became director of pediatric emergency services. She also was a mother of five, president of her children’s Parent Teacher Organization and a Girl Scout leader, happily married and living in a custom built home on five acres of land in Ada.
But right around “the turn of the century,” she began to lose it all. A series of chronic illnesses had her fighting for her life while her husband, who Dettmann says was her caretaker, was going through the process of filing for what became a very messy divorce. By 2008, her medical license had expired, she was on full disability and bedridden for 23 hours a day, on care “tantamount to hospice.”
“No one thought I would live, let alone practice medicine,” Dettmann said.
But on one fateful day in September 2011, Dettmann had what she calls her “spiritual moment.” And after several years of struggling to survive, she began to turn her life back around.
“I was 50 years old, and I had spent my life being smart and achieving and making other people happy,” Dettmann said. “And I had just run 90 miles an hour, having babies and getting all these diplomas on my walls. But it wasn’t until that moment I finally stood still enough to hear, and that was a life changer for me.”
From there, Dettmann began the difficult process of picking herself back up. She became re-licensed to practice medicine, but after her ordeal, had decided to switch her focus. During her divorce proceedings, Dettmann’s illnesses were instead framed as a drug addiction and mental illness. Subject to many of the injustices and stereotypes experienced by those battling addiction of mental illness, Dettmann saw a need to care for and protect the rights of those who had been stigmatized.
But with her career-long focus on emergency medicine, Dettmann had little experience in the area. So, she began to study, earning her certifications and learning all the legal ins and outs of specializing in addiction medicine. In 2014, she opened her own practice, The Dettmann Center, where she manages patients using addiction medication to assist with their recovery.
In addition to her practice, Dettmann also teaches at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and Grand Valley State University, serves on the board of Kent County Medical Society and is a delegate to the Michigan State Medical Society. She has testified in Lansing on behalf of legislation to protect prescribers of Naloxone, which blocks the effects of opioids and is included in many overdose emergency kits, and has partnered with SpartanNash to make the drug more readily available at pharmacies.
“I went from knowing nothing to teaching advanced pathophysiology and pharmaceutical and clinical skills to medical and Ph.D. students at Grand Valley and Michigan State,” Dettmann said. “My brain came back 200 percent.”
Dettmann is passionate in her mission to help treat addictions, noting in the United States, an adult has a greater chance of dying from a drug overdose than a car accident.
“We’re in the midst of the largest manmade epidemic in U.S. history, and I have made my life, my career and my passion about caring for and protecting the rights of individuals who have been marginalized, shamed, blamed and even punished in our society for their diseases,” Dettmann said. “I took the Hippocratic oath to help people suffering from disease, not just people suffering from diseases that I like.”
In October 2015, Dettmann became board certified in addiction medicine by the American Board of Addiction Medicine, becoming one of more than 3,000 physicians in the nation to receive board certification.
“I literally have just crawled out of a hole,” Dettmann said. “And everything I do in life is based in wanting to protect the rights of people suffering from the disease of addiction. And I’m very lucky as a physician, because I treat a disease that is largely preventable, simply through education.”
Dettmann currently is writing a book on her experiences, titled “She Finally Stood Still,” taking its name from one of the first Bible verses she ever memorized, Psalm 46:10 — “Be still, and know that I am God.” Dettmann applied the verse when she had her spiritual moment that turned her life around, and it became the impetus for her book.
Dettmann attributes much of her life’s turnaround not just to her spirit and spirituality, but also to the kindness and favor she experienced in Grand Rapids. While she struggled to survive, she forged strong connections within the community and because she had been kind and compassionate in her career, Dettmann had people she could call to help get her back up on the rare occasion she could swallow her pride enough to ask for help.
“I was able to heal and succeed due to the love of a kind, caring and compassionate Grand Rapids community,” she said. “Because without them, I would be in my car still. I always say the thing that has helped me so much is that I built firm foundations. I was always dependable, was compassionate and kind, so when my life fell apart and I was sick and abandoned and alone, people were there.”
Now, as Dettmann’s practice continues to help patients on a daily basis, she looks back on her near-decade long battle to survive the effects of a chronic illness and homelessness and sees the experience helped her better understand not just her patients, but the city as a whole. She can connect her patients with various resources near them because she once used them.
Dettmann thinks back on that time and remembers how difficult it was for her to find her self-worth, having been so broken and beaten, despite all that she had accomplished in the first 50 years of her life. Now, she enjoys having found her purpose in her second life.
“I learned to believe in myself again, and the more you can believe in yourself, the easier it is to reach out and get help,” Dettmann said. “It’s been on calm, clear, consistent behavior that I’ve rebuilt my credibility and my life and a great medical practice that can make a difference.”