By AARON GETTINGER
Sarah Gad is running for Congress in Illinois’ 1st District on a platform based on social justice, judicial reform and expanding access to medical and mental health care, issues that have directly affected her own life.
As a third-year University of Chicago medical student she suffered a traumatic brain injury in an automobile accident, became addicted to opioids during treatment and was incarcerated before turning her life around and entering law school.
After a three-month internship in Washington with the Drug Policy Alliance, Gad said she was aghast at how congressional work on health care, education, prison conditions and the opioid crisis is done, and she is confident that she can add vital perspective to the legislative process.
“What’s he done?” she asked of her opponent, 27-year incumbent Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1st). “He’s missed 20% of the votes in the past 4 years, and these are on pertinent issues affecting our district.”
Gad expressed sympathy for the 2017 death of Rush’s wife, but she said the 1st District, which she called “one of the most vulnerable in the country … plagued by unparalleled rates of unemployment, gun violence” and illness needs an attentive representative.
“As a person, I respect Bobby Rush,” Gad said. “But I also respect the democratic process.”
Gad pledges to work on criminal disenfranchisement and Black unemployment in Congress: “This is something that directly impacts interstate commerce: criminal records. Once you’ve paid your debt to society, you’ve paid your debt. Let somebody rebuild their live without impediment.”
As a medical student, Gad worked in Veterans Affairs health care — she said it is as close as anything to “Medicare for All” and the most inefficient system she has ever seen. She endorsed universal health insurance; ways to move towards a single payer system that she supports include “ramping up” preventative care and increasing the number of primary care practitioners, whom she described as “sorely underpaid compared (with) other professions.”
Gad said reducing the incarcerated population would open up money for other priorities, though she also supports wealth tax proposals put forth by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.). She wants expanded background checks but also “a more tolerant system of justice that doesn’t just ostracize people who’ve committed crimes.” She wants second chances and giving people “the opportunity to rebuild their lives without impediment.” And she wants a wholescale reform of the Controlled Substances Act alongside expungement of nonviolent drug offenses.
“I went to law school to basically create a road map of how to fix most of these issues. And by this point, I think I have a pretty good idea of how to fix most of these issues,” Gad said. “I’m not just touting policies that everyone else is touting because the Democratic Party likes it. I’m trying to be realistic about how we’re actually going to enforce these things that are going to include the quality of life and well-being of not just my constituents but Americans in general.”
Gad’s experiences have moved her far beyond her early upbringing. She was born to an Egyptian mother and an African American father in the St. Paul, Minnesota, suburbs. Money was tight — Gad started working when she was 15 — and her parents emphasized the importance of education.
She attended the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, where she did research on HIV and volunteer work with HIV/AIDS in Kenya and Nigeria. She was attending the University of Pittsburgh medical school when the car accident changed the trajectory of her life. Her brain injury rendered her unable to speak for some time.
She became addicted to prescription painkillers during her recovery. “They were prescribed to me fairly liberally,” she said. “I think they were under the assumption that, ‘Well, she’s a medical student; she understands that opioids are addictive.’ It was really never discussed. I understood that addiction was a disease. I knew that opioids were addictive. I didn’t necessarily think that I could become addicted to them. I didn’t necessarily realize that the disease doesn’t discriminate.”
Her doctors stopped prescribing the painkillers six months after Gad’s accident, by which point she felt unable to survive without them. Her judgment, planning, decision-making, self-control and executive functioning withered: “I wasn’t myself. My life was drugs: my life was just finding painkillers.”
Gad, who said she had never gotten a speeding ticket before her addiction, began writing bogus prescriptions — though, by her admission, she was not a skilled criminal. She was arrested and taken to the Cook County Jail. It was overcrowded, so she was placed into maximum-security confinement, where, she says, an inmate sexually assaulted her. She called a hotline to report and got a reputation as a snitch, and she says she was beaten regularly
“My colleagues have a different mentality and approach to the cases that we work on, because they don’t have personal experience with being in a cage,” said Gad, who is now a student at the U. of C. Law School. “They don’t really act with the necessary sense of urgency that it requires.”
She was released after 27 days, but getting her life back on track proved continually difficult because her arrest record caused discrimination in employment and in housing. In 2014, she was released from jail for the third time; once out, she overdosed, after which she says she found the treatment she needed.
“For a long time, I was really struggling, and I eventually came to realize that I was not going to be able to move on with my life if I didn’t find a way to incorporate what happened to me into my life in a meaningful, positive way,” she said. After working at her own attorney’s law practice, she entered U. of C. law school in 2017, knowing it was the only chance she would get to show she could contribute to society and interested in pursuing criminal justice and drug law reform.
Women with whom Gad had been in jail were dying after being released while she was re-starting her life.
“What I was seeing was what I had experienced myself,” Gad said. “The South Side of Chicago is 93% African American, and it also has the highest black unemployment rate in the country (and) the highest criminal disenfranchisement rate in the country. All of this is intertwined.”
She was accepted into other law schools, but she wanted to stay in Chicago; she has volunteered with the Chicago Community Bond Fund and the Law School’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic. She formed her own nonprofit, Addiction 2 Action, which works to bring addiction care medications to prisoners.
“After you go through real adversity — after you’ve truly suffered — at least for me, I want to do everything in my power to prevent people from going through the stuff that I went through,” she said.
(Editor’s note: This story has been edited to change where Gad attended medical school. Although she stated she went to UChicago Pritzker, in fact, she attended U. of Pittsburgh.)