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

UPON HEARING her story, a consoling preacher might have been tempted togive Towanda Reaves that old, hopeful proverb about doors -- when one closes,another one opens. We found out yesterday that the door Reaves thought hadbeen closed to her forever is still open a crack. It's hard to see from aboutfive 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 heroinaddiction and drug dealing, Reaves trained to become a nursing assistant atLiberty Medical Center and received her certification in 1994. She worked innursing homes. She loved it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The board's mission is to "assure safe, competent nurses and nursing carefor the citizens of Maryland." It conducts licensing examinations and issueslicenses to practice, and it enforces professional standards. The board canrevoke 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 theaddiction for a considerable period. "If someone has been clean for five yearsand has a good history of employment during that time, then the door is notclosed," Dorsey says. "Drug addiction is a disease. We shouldn't put a scarletletter on a person for life."

As for Towanda Reaves, Dorsey says, "She would have to start all overagain, 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 totake a bus from her apartment across Baltimore to some unknown job she'dlanded 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 toprovide her with the income to avoid relapse into the street life."Housekeeping, waitressing, prep work, I've done all that," she says. "I cando anything, as long as I'm trained well."

Businesses interested in hiring any of the people profiled in recentcolumns can contact Dan Rodricks at 410-332-6166, or by e-mail at

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