Former drug abuser finds a chance to regain happiness lost to addiction

UPON HEARING her story, a consoling preacher might have been tempted to give Towanda Reaves that old, hopeful proverb about doors -- when one closes, another one opens. We found out yesterday that the door Reaves thought had been closed to her forever is still open a crack. It's hard to see from about five years away, but there's definitely a small opening.

So maybe Reaves shouldn't give up on getting her old job back. It was, after all, a job she loved.

It seemed to have existed in a previous life.

As best as she can remember, back through a cloudy decade of heroin addiction and drug dealing, Reaves trained to become a nursing assistant at Liberty Medical Center and received her certification in 1994. She worked in nursing homes. She loved it.

"But I blew it," she tells me over a cup of tea at a restaurant on Reisterstown Road. "I know I blew it. When the application [to renew her state certification] came in the mail, I just let it go. I was high."

She was one of thousands of Baltimoreans hooked on heroin, and, worse, she was for many years involved in its sale and distribution. She slipped deep into the drug life in the late 1990s, losing her last nursing job and the company of her young son, who went to live with Reaves' mother in a better environment. "I didn't want to expose him to that," she says of her son and the drug scene in West Baltimore.

Compared with others in the drug life, Reaves was lucky -- she avoided serious jail time and has lived long enough to tell about her life on the street.

At 40 years old, she's still not far removed from it, so she's careful about what she says. Six months does not make a full recovery from heroin addiction. She knows there's a long road ahead.

"What I want right now is a steady job, better than the temporary jobs I've been taking, something full-time," she says. "What I'd really like to do is be a nursing assistant again, but as much as I loved it, that's something I have to let go of."

Reaves has felony convictions -- for writing a series of bad checks to get cash for drugs -- and she assumes that she could never again be certified to work as a health-care professional. Nurses and nursing assistants must renew their licenses and certifications periodically, and Reaves says she was told that felons are prohibited from continuing in the field.

Not exactly so, says Donna M. Dorsey, executive director of the Maryland Board of Nursing.

The board's mission is to "assure safe, competent nurses and nursing care for the citizens of Maryland." It conducts licensing examinations and issues licenses to practice, and it enforces professional standards. The board can revoke or deny licenses, or it can consider appeals.

Dorsey says the board can consider licensing someone convicted of a crime -- even a narcotics offense, if that person has been in recovery from the addiction for a considerable period. "If someone has been clean for five years and has a good history of employment during that time, then the door is not closed," Dorsey says. "Drug addiction is a disease. We shouldn't put a scarlet letter on a person for life."

As for Towanda Reaves, Dorsey says, "She would have to start all over again, go through training and be certified as a nursing assistant."

And be clean for a number of years, perhaps the five Dorsey mentioned.

Reaves was surprised to learn this yesterday afternoon, as she prepared to take a bus from her apartment across Baltimore to some unknown job she'd landed through a temporary employment agency.

The door back to that job she loved -- even nursing school -- isn't closed, after all.

What Dorsey needs is patience, a commitment to recovery, and a job to provide her with the income to avoid relapse into the street life. "Housekeeping, waitressing, prep work, I've done all that," she says. "I can do anything, as long as I'm trained well."

Businesses interested in hiring any of the people profiled in recent columns can contact Dan Rodricks at 410-332-6166, or by e-mail at dan.rodrick s@baltsun.com.

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