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Up from rock bottom: A healing journey out of alcoholism

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Up from rock bottom: A healing journey out of alcoholism

Jon Sustachek

Jon Sustachek isn't the man he used to be – and he's the first to say that's a good thing. He was a guy whose abuse of alcohol ruined his marriage and nearly killed him. "I always say, that Jon is dead," says the 66-year-old UnitedHealthcare member. "The new one is dry."

Dry – as in sober – and determined to make tomorrow better than the past he can't erase. A turning point in his battle with alcohol came about five years ago, when he learned just how much drinking had affected his health.

A sober awakening

The retired Racine, Wis., firefighter was living alone after his marriage ended, in part, because of his drinking. A bottle now occupied most of his time. And, it strained relationships with his two daughters. One day before dawn, Jon awoke shaking uncontrollably – he couldn't drink from a glass of water without spilling it. "I had the sense to call 911," he says.

The next thing he recalls is waking up in the hospital with IV tubes. "That's when the doctor came in and said, "You've got cirrhosis.'" Jon was also dehydrated, his kidneys were failing and he was suffering from pneumonia. As he says, "I was "pretty much dying." The doctor also delivered a warning: "One thing I'll always remember: He said, 'Stay dry or die.'"

Jon did stop drinking. Still, over the next three years, he spent a lot of time in the hospital because of his liver disease. One complication that was particularly troubling was hepatic encephalopathy. When a failing liver can't remove toxins from the blood, they build up in the brain, causing confusion and personality changes.

As his disease continued to advance, Jon was put on a donor organ waiting list. The requirements included sobriety and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. "I stuck to it religiously," he says.

Then, in 2008, his liver failed completely. He would need a liver transplant to survive. He was in the hospital, gravely ill, when a compatible donor organ became available. He was rushed into surgery.

A grateful man

Jon is so thankful he heeded the doctor's stern warning five years ago. "I'm still dry. I'm still alive," he says. It's been a struggle he shares sometimes in AA meetings. "And that helps me reaffirm my strength and not take the first drink," he says.

He credits his daughters with inspiring him to fight addiction and disease. Alcohol, he says, drew a curtain between him and his loved ones. "It was only after I really got sick that I realized how much they loved me still," he says. He knew he couldn't put them, or his body, through that again.

Newfound faith is also a source of strength. While in the hospital, a pastor from his brother's church said the congregation would pray for him. Jon later joined that church. He's also written to the family of the deceased donor. "Every day I think about her and her family," he says.

Jon praises UnitedHealthcare and everyone involved in his care. "The service I got was second-to-none," he says. And, the steady coverage of his hospital expenses gave him peace of mind. "Taking that worry away, with everything else I was going through, really made recovery and everything so much better," Jon says.

His journey was chronicled in a series of newspaper articles – in The Post-Crescent of Appleton, Wis. – on alcohol's toll. Jon hopes others see what can happen when drinking gets out of control.

Seeing the beauty in life

Life's challenges no longer send Jon running to a bottle. He's learned to see the positive in situations – a glass half-full approach, he says. And, now that he's opened the curtains, he appreciates "the beautiful and wonderful things" out there.

"My life has, through all of this, come out a lot better than it was," he says.

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