Valley Man Finds Addiction Healing and Hope at Adventist Health Hanford

Jul 18, 2023


Benny Joe Barela thought his life might be over.

The 31-year-old Corcoran man was sitting in the passenger seat of his car outside his parents’ house while deciding whether to accept a ride to Adventist Health Hanford for help.

He was suffering the severe impacts of excessive alcohol use and withdrawal – seizures, pain, shakes, hallucinations, anxiety, vomiting and heart issues. He was having a hard time talking and walking.

He was also depressed. A formally trained chef who had loved cooking since he was 6 years old, he just couldn’t care about it anymore.

Only a week earlier, he had written a detailed suicide note to 40 of his family members and friends and then drank more alcohol in two attempts to end his pain and hallucinations.

Now Benny Joe’s parents were standing outside his car on a spring day in 2022, begging him to go to the hospital. Tears were streaming down his mom’s face as his dad pleaded with him: “BJ, you have to go or you’re going to die.”

Still, he hesitated. Maybe he wasn’t that bad. He pulled the car visor down and studied himself in the mirror. His eyes were yellow and sunken due to jaundice, dehydration and weight loss. He hadn’t showered in days or slept much in months. He couldn’t keep food down.

“Is this how I’m going to die?” he wondered.

Then he came to the decision that he would later call “the best choice I made for myself.”

Benny Joe in the hospital on Day 1
Days of Healing

The healing started later that day at Adventist Health with an IV to stop the dehydration and with lab and imaging work to assess his heart and other organs. It continued with nutrients to give him strength and with clinical and emotional support to make it through the withdrawals.

His first few days were foggy, Benny Joe said, but he did notice one person coming in and out of his hospital room. She introduced herself and visited him daily, sometimes as many as four times a day.

He wasn’t sure at first if she was real. “I thought it was all a dream.”

Ariana Rios Flores, a registered substance use navigator with Adventist Health, is passionate about helping those suffering from addiction. With a background in recovery and behavioral health, she was serving as a care coordinator in the hospital’s emergency department in 2019 when her manager asked her if she’d like to help patients another way. Adventist Health Hanford had received a California Bridge grant to expand services for patients who need help dealing with addiction.

Ariana had lost a loved one to suicide years earlier, someone who suffered in silence. “It opened my eyes and my passion to help others,” she says.

She and her team aim to help substance-use patients feel comfortable. “We want to change the stigma of addiction, help them and advocate for them.”

Benny Joe looked forward to Ariana’s visits during his three-week stay.

“I was so excited to see her. She was asking me how I felt inside, how I was doing on a scale of one to 10. The doctors told me about my numbers. She cared about me mentally and my feelings.”

Ariana gave Benny Joe a booklet of recovery information, and much more. “We go beyond resources,” she says. “We do the calls, help them with their assessments, try to help them out. We also teach them harm reduction. … We let them know that we’re ready and open for when they come in.”

In addition to visiting him inside the hospital, Ariana called Benny Joe multiple times after he left to check in on him. She also connected him with Dr. Marc Lasher, who specializes in addiction medicine, diagnosing and treating patients with substance abuse issues with the goal of achieving recovery.

“Dr. Lasher changed my life,” Benny Joe says. “He told me stories. He gave me tips on how to approach any situation. He made everything better.”

A Year Later

While Benny Joe suffered a brief relapse after he left the hospital, he quickly recovered and celebrated a year of sobriety on June 29, 2023.

“I found myself again & my true love for cooking has gotten even better,” he wrote in a social media post. “I’m also going to continue to share my story because I want people to know it’s okay to admit your problem & it’s your choice if you want to do better, we are out here for each other.”

Benny Joe urges those struggling with addiction to keep up the battle. “This disease is real and it’s hard. Don’t lose hope. Fight! There is hope, and I’m a living example of that. God and life are good.”

He also expressed gratitude for Ariana and Adventist Health: "Thank you so much for being a huge part of saving my life. You and Adventist Health are my family. Thank you for personally caring about me.”

He visited Ariana at the hospital to thank her and share his progress, how he loves cooking again and is working full-time, helping his parents and advocating for others who struggle with addiction.

Ariana gets teary-eyed when she talks about Benny Joe.

“Hearing back from our patients and the impact we have had on's priceless,” she says. “They’re human beings. All they need is someone they can feel comfortable around, who can help them feel understood and give them hope. We need to see beyond their addiction and understand that there is a story behind this disease.”

Those who would like to know more about Adventist Health Hanford’s services for substance use disorder may call 559-537-1724.