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VOL. 131 | NO. 74 | Wednesday, April 13, 2016

UTHSC Center for Addictions Created to Save Lives

By Andy Meek

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Back when he was still jumping out of planes as an Army Green Beret, serving alongside some of the nation’s most elite fighters, Daniel Sumrok was also inflating lungs and patching bullet holes. The imperative to save lives was part of the job, and he checked that box repeatedly.

He’s not in a war zone anymore. And yet, as director of the new Center for Addiction Sciences in the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center – where he’s helping people kick ruinous, sometimes life-threatening addictions and researching causes surrounding them – he’s convinced of at least one thing:


He’s saving countless more lives today.

“I feel fortunate to be doing this work,” said Dr. Sumrok, who’s also an assistant professor at UTHSC. His center’s new facility, located at 1325 Eastmoreland Ave., has been open and seeing patients for a little more than a week, and the team is already planning more facilities elsewhere in the community as well as associated research efforts.

“Our focus is on identifying and treating all sorts of addictive disorders involving everything from gambling to screens to sex to opiates and alcohol. We think we really have a lot to offer.”

Sumrok was one of first 106 physicians in North America boarded in addiction medicine, according to UTHSC. Submitting his idea to the university for a center that focused on that narrow aspect of medicine was the culmination of his observations and interest in the specialty for years.

He recalls talking to a former Army buddy about his concerns related to addiction. After listening to Sumrok lament the spread of addiction to things like methamphetamine and alcohol, the friend came back with a straightforward reply: Why don’t you do something?

Trouble was, Sumrok didn’t know what to do – yet.

His industry is still grappling with the specifics around what exactly to do. In recent weeks, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new clinical guidelines for prescribing opioids to help combat the nation’s overdose epidemic.

Among the reasons? Primary care clinicians report “having concerns about opioid pain medication misuse, find managing patients with chronic pain stressful, express concern about patient addiction, and report insufficient training in prescribing opioids,” according to a report from the CDC that included the updated guidelines.

Sumrok adds that Dr. David Stern, executive dean of the UTHSC College of Medicine, has long held an interest in issues around addiction. And Stern likewise had a vision for a center that pursued everything from education – teaching other doctors about addictions – and treatment across all demographics, in addition to research and community outreach.

“We’re building our staff right now,” Sumrok says. “Dr. Stern wants us to interact across disciplines – with pediatric residents, medical students, basic science guys. We also have a large genetics project planned that will look at DNA profiles.”

In a few months, sister facilities will open to pursue similar work, treating people for various addictions. New centers are slated to open at Regional One Health and in Germantown.

Sumrok’s favorite thing about the job is hearing from grateful patients who tell him they’re “happy to have my life back.” That they aren’t automatically disbelieved anymore, that they’re not spending their free time looking for a fix. That he’s able to have helped another life be saved.

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