Giant spiders, brush with death prompt life-changing end to alcohol addiction
Brent Worwa began socially drinking alcohol with friends on weekends while attending college in North Dakota. But after years of work stress and social anxiety, he lost his job in April 2019 due to drinking taking control of his life. From there he began drinking every day, never leaving his downtown Minneapolis condo at all – sleeping, eating, and drinking on his couch – and hiding his addiction from his friends and family. All his food and alcohol were delivered to his condo using the popular app delivery services.
“I basically was just drinking myself to oblivion,” he explained. He described how it got so bad that he began to hallucinate at times, seeing larger-than-life spiders emerge from a potted plant and torment him.
On the morning of September 28, 2020, Brent woke up on his couch, sat up and said out loud to himself, “I’m going to die today.” He had a friend drive him immediately to HCMC’s emergency department and drop him off.
“I walked into the ED — I didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “I didn’t even look in the mirror before I left home, so I had no idea what I looked like and so I was wondering why all these people were kind of staring at me. I was wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt and didn’t really think much of it. They took me into the triage area, and they let me go ahead of everyone; again, I didn’t really know why they brought me in ahead of everyone. A bunch of nurses and ED physicians surrounded me, and they asked, ‘Why do you think you’re here today?’ and all I said was ‘I think I’m gonna die today.’ And that’s the last thing I remember. I was admitted and in the ICU for more than a month.”
Brent’s skin and eyes were so yellow from jaundice due to liver failure that someone said his skin “looked like a dark banana,” which likely pushed him to the front of the line in triage. He was diagnosed with severe alcoholic hepatitis, and hepatic encephalopathy (which likely brought on hallucinations). When your liver is failing, ammonia ends up poisoning your brain resulting in hallucinations, amongst other serious side-effects.
He also had kidney damage and ascites, which is a condition when toxic fluid builds up in your abdomen and in Brent’s case, pushed more of that toxic fluid up into his lung cavity, crushing his left lung into the size of a pea.
Brent and his family were told that he was not likely going to survive, and that they should get his affairs in order. He was referred to palliative care and recommended for hospice. Brent’s parents, both working at 63, immediately retired from their respective careers to care for their son at their home in Shoreview. A doctor told him that if he had continued drinking for another week or two, his parents would have found him dead on the couch.
Hennepin Healthcare’s inpatient Addiction Medicine team saw Brent in the hospital. He was on anti-psychotic drugs to control the hallucinations – drugs that are so strong, they can result in a fogged mind and later, difficulty in memory. Once he felt better, Brent became chatty and began educating residents on his condition. Kitty Earl-Torniainen, PA-C, who treated Brent as an inpatient, thought he may be best served after discharge in the Coordinated Care Clinic (CCC). This was about saving his life.
Kitty contacted Dr. Allison Wert in the CCC. Dr. Wert explains, “The CCC serves patients with complex health problems that may result in frequent hospitalizations. They are high utilizers of healthcare and are usually on multiple medications. Patients must be referred in. Brent didn’t really fit that mold, but he needed a lot of care with all his conditions. He was very vulnerable on one hand, yet determined and strong on the other. We took him into the clinic and cheered him on with his progress.”
During this time, Brent continued to receive treatment for his ascites, and mentioned how much he enjoyed Hennepin Healthcare’s Interventional Radiology (IR) team, who were tasked with removing fluid every 10 days from his abdomen and his left lung cavity so he could breathe properly. Brent loves to make people laugh, and shared that at one time, the levity in IR lab due to his joking forced a brief pause so team members could collect themselves.
“The amount of laughing that me and all the staff in IR did – that’s also one of the reasons I stayed alive. In fact, my mom would often accompany me to these appointments, and she told me I had to stop talking so much. We agreed on a secret word for her to warn me when I was getting too chatty: Muskrat.”
While living at the home of his parents, abstaining from alcohol, and complying with his care plan, Brent got on the transplant list and eleven months later received the call that he had a liver and had to get to the hospital within 30 minutes. He made it – that was on March 23, 2022.
“Since getting a new liver I feel great – amazing – with no pain. And every lab that’s come back so far has been perfect,” he said.
Now busy preparing to open a residential electrical contracting company in St. Paul, Brent is making time to share his remarkable story so others know that they, too, can overcome alcohol addiction. He had no idea what he was doing to himself when he was drinking – and wants to warn about the damage it can cause to internal organs.
“Alcohol abuse can destroy your body in more ways than one, and I want others to know before it’s too late.”
He recently visited Dr. Wert in the CCC, “Because she saved my life.” But adds that he is grateful to the many teams at Hennepin Healthcare who recognized the help he needed, took great care of him, and surrounded him with encouragement to overcome his addiction.
“A nursing assistant caring for me while I was hospitalized would say to me: ‘You will never drink again.’ She was right. She was just one of the multiple staff members in multiple divisions and areas at HCMC who one hundred percent completely saved my life.”