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Book shatters illusions, medic’s beliefs about addiction

“In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction” is a must-read for medics and their self-preservation


“In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” has shaped and informed paramedic Brent Kelland’s believes about addiction

By Brent L. Kelland

Medical providers, including paramedics, at any level should strive to deliver patient care with the greatest amount of empathy and understanding our patient’s condition should always be our ultimate objective. “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction” opened my view and challenged the mold of callousness that had become entrenched in my attitude toward addicts.

The author, Gabor Maté, MD specializes in childhood developmental disorders and addiction. He is an inner city physician, as well as an internationally renowned researcher, best-selling author and captivating lecturer. He earned street cred by facilitating a clinic on Vancouver’s East Hastings, an epicenter of destitution, homelessness and substance addiction.

“In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” opens with a gritty series of chapters describing the true-life stories of an assortment of Maté’s patients. This part of the book is not for the faint of heart; it hits well below the beltline of socially acceptable experiences and is written in the language spoken by the storytellers. Maté also shares his personal background and experiences, along with his own battles with addiction.

Next, Maté takes readers through an educational experience authored in language that is understandable for lay people, yet in-depth enough for the medically trained to find thoroughly informative and evidence based. He addresses human evolution, infant brain development, critical neurological systems, synaptic pruning, the need of the presence and nurturing of a stable, unstressed adult during the first four years and the overall physiological development of addiction.

Finally, the reader is led to an understanding that addiction isn’t about bad choices. Rather addiction is the continuation of self-abuse as the result of mal-developed cerebral survival systems, calling for compensation from an external source.

Meaning for paramedics treating addicts
One of my paramedic partners wrote; “I think the biggest thing people struggle with is coming in with their biases and preconceptions about addiction and the addicted. The book really serves to shatter that illusion, at least it did for me and it forces you to look objectively at our society as a whole in the treatment of these people.”

By allowing myself to become less callous, cynical and bitter toward the addicted population which I was called upon to serve, I no longer required the need to hold the frustration and even anger within myself. As medics we see and experience enough hurt, disappointment, sadness and exasperation throughout our careers to jeopardize our own mental health. If we are able to dismiss any given source of pain to us, why wouldn’t we?

My family also benefitted because from this book — let’s face it — life is just happier for everyone when I don’t come home from work angry. And most families are heavily impacted when a family member is addicted or under great stress from constant interactions with addicts. Having the knowledge to clear the air of confusion, resolve misunderstandings and help direct the inflicted loved one to appropriate help without feeling judged or looked down on is an invaluable asset. I believe “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” is a wonderful guide to achieving just that.


“In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Close Encounters with Addiction”
By Gabor Maté MD
Published by Vintage Canada, 2009
Available on Amazon and Indigo

About the author:

Brent Kelland has been involved in pre-hospital care since 1978. He worked as a paramedic for the City of Edmonton for 22 years. In 1997 he sat on the City of Edmonton EMS planning committee, making recommendations to City Council for the delivery model which existed for 10 years. Other achievements include teaching Paramedicine for the Canadian College of EMS, the primary author of “CommuniMed Multilingual Patient Assessment Manual,” and he holds his Canadian Emergency Services Medal for Exemplary Service in EMS. Presently he is employed as a clinical Paramedic for remote industrial worksites.