James Harrison can’t remember how many times he wound up in the Emergency Department at Wilmington Hospital during the 13 years he was addicted to heroin.
But he will never forget the compassionate nurse who took his hand, which was scarred by abscesses and years of injections.
“She didn’t just hold my hand,” he recalls. “She rubbed my skin and talked to me. I could feel that she cared.”
Nurses, social workers and others at Christiana Care who care for people with substance-abuse problems gathered at Christiana and Wilmington hospitals in September for National Recovery Month roundtables.
By listening to panel members share how they found freedom from active addiction, they hoped to gain insights that would help them reach out to patients who abuse drugs and alcohol.
Nurses voiced their frustration at treating patients for drug- or alcohol-related conditions, only to see them return with the same problem. How could they better connect with their patients?
Studies conclude that training and awareness programs help nurses to more fully understand the behavior of patients with addictions. At the roundtable, they heard firsthand about the powerful urge a newly clean substance abuser feels to get high again.
“For me, being sober was painful,” said Peter Booras.
Booras is an engagement specialist at Wilmington Hospital, part of Project Engage, an innovative initiative that provides addicts with a direct link from the hospital to the resources that can support them in recovery.
“The extra step that we will take is to roll the patients directly into treatment,” says Booras, who has been clean and sober for seven years. “We will drive them there.”
That strategy is proving effective, with about one third of patients enrolling in community treatment programs. Project Engage is gaining national attention as a model for reducing both human suffering and the medical costs associated with addiction.
An effective first step in engaging a patient is to ask permission to address the problem, says Terry Horton, M.D., Christiana Care’s chief of Addiction Medicine and medical director of Project Engage.
“Ask, ‘Can we talk about your drinking?’” he suggests.
That simple question opens the door to meaningful conversation, such as the link between drinking too much and serious illnesses such as cirrhosis and pancreatitis.
Harrison’s father died of an overdose on the steps of Wilmington Hospital, where he was dropped by the addicts he used to shoot drugs with.
The younger Harrison might have died, too. Instead, he went to prison for selling drugs. There, he earned his high-school diploma. After his release, he went on to get a master’s degree in counseling. He found God.
His road to recovery was long and difficult. He was kicked out of a treatment program nine times for breaking his pledge to stay clean. But he finally turned his life around and has been free from drugs for more than 20 years.
Today, Harrison is director of operations and communications at Brandywine Counseling & Community Services.
“For you, the challenge is to look at folks differently,” he says. “You have to look at every time as an opportunity for a change catalyst.”