CRANBERRY TWP — There are days when Melissa Coblentz feels the frustration.
A certified recovery specialist, she spends her time working with those battling through addiction, trying their best to stay on the road to recovery. Often, those same people relapse, falling victim to the familiar pangs of addiction.
“You get tired and worn out,” Coblentz, who is in recovery herself, told a dozen people gathered last Tuesday in the Cranberry Township Training Center. “You have to remind yourself, 'I come from this.'”
Still, that doesn't always work to silence the familiar question: “why can't you just stop?”
Those gathered last week were first responders and emergency medical personnel who will take part in the township's Hope Program, a pilot initiative aimed at helping people in their recovery efforts. The program is funded through a $5,000 grant from Magellan Health, and is being implemented countywide through various EMS and police organizations and treatment facilities.
According to Ted Fessides, deputy chief of administration for Cranberry Township EMS, the program has been in the planning stages since earlier this year, and plans call for it to begin Nov. 1.
Under the program, law enforcement and EMS agencies will have release forms to get people signed up for the program. It might be overdose patients or people that police encounter through their jobs that are identified as needing help with drug addiction. Fessides noted that while opioid overdoses are down in the county so far in 2018, other drug overdoses are slowly increasing, and while the program was created with opioid addiction in mind, all addictions will be handled.
Cranberry EMS will then set up a visit between the person and a team that includes an EMS personnel member, a law enforcement officer and a representative from the county drug and alcohol program or a local rehabilitation center. The rehab representative will talk about getting clean and be able to get the person signed up for a treatment program during the visit.
Fessides said these visits will be made by plain-clothes officers. Officials will push for them to take place in a public space because law enforcement and EMS personnel are required to report if they see evidence of drug use at a home, he said.
“The first time that happens, it is going to sink this program,” he said.
If the person is not interested or ready for treatment, personnel will talk about harm reduction strategies. That means finding clean needle sites and offering tips on how to safely try new dosages of drugs. There is also an option to leave opioid-reversal drug Narcan behind to further reduce risk.
“At the end of the day, it is not realistic to think that just because we met with these people, they're going to quit doing what they're doing and become productive members of society again,” Fessides told the group. “Life doesn't work that way.”
The law enforcement officer will be there for the safety of the two other agencies and to build community relations. Fessides said the grant allows for the law enforcement agency to be reimbursed $50 for the visit, while EMS would receive $40.
An action plan will be created for individual participants, and officials will follow up with the person throughout the recovery process, checking in at the 30-, 60- and 90-day point. That data will be logged, with Fessides saying the grant will cover 50 interactions.
“That's a decent data port for us to be able to go to the county commissioners, the Centers of Excellence, the state and then find long term, permanent funding for this if the data shows that this works,” he said. “That is the great unknown.”
What is known by Fessides and others gathered is the stigma that goes along with being a person in recovery. On more than one occasion Tuesday, a familiar line was repeated: why not just let them die?
For Fessides, that answer is simple.
“No, these are human beings,” he said bluntly. “You wouldn't say this to a diabetic. You wouldn't say this to a heart disease patient. You wouldn't say this to a lung cancer patient. Why is it OK to say this to an addict?”
The training focused on breaking down that stigma, with Coblentz and Jason Beckwith, a Butler resident and certified recovery specialist and founder of Action in Recovery, sharing their battles with the gathered first responders.
“We're starting with our own first, because we are our own worst enemy when it comes to this,” Fessides admitted. “We all at one point had this stigma toward this.”
Fessides said once people realize how close to home addiction can hit, the stigma will slowly fade.
“Almost everyone these days knows someone who had a friend or family member who was addicted and either passed on or got better,” he said. “At the end of the day, those are really the only two choices: you either get off it ... or, unfortunately, you pass on. There's no successful lifelong heroin user.”
Beckwith shared his story, going from a teenager drinking and smoking marijuana to becoming addicted to other, more serious drugs.
“Mine crossed an invisible line I wasn't aware of,” he said, adding his addiction wasn't a choice. “I think everybody's mind-set is we made a choice. ... It wasn't just one day waking up being like 'I have nothing better to do, let me burn my life to the ground and everybody that's around me.”
Beckwith said he understood the negative connotation addiction has, particularly with first responders.
“If I'm a first responder, I see people I'm (reviving) every day, I see people arrested every day, I see a house with kids running around not being taken care of, I'm formulating my opinion based on this and ... it's almost a core belief,” he said.
Coblentz agreed, saying she hoped her story would help first responders empathize with the struggle that goes along with recovery.
“I couldn't just stand up here and say 'this is what I did,' because I knew that the people sitting in these chairs aren't necessarily going to understand what it's like to feel hopeless and to reach for a drink or a drug to take that away,” she said of her presentation. “I had to put it in the perspective of this is what you see on the outside, but this is what I'm feeling on the inside when I do this.”
A new approach
Beckwith said the Hope Program is a “revolutionary approach” to finding help for those in need. He said while more treatment options and inpatient facilities are helpful, it's the time after a person is no longer in treatment that support is needed the most.
“We're planting seeds in this approach,” he said. “You Narcan somebody, they get brought back out, they're not in the frame of mind to really absorb anything at that time. We follow up a couple days later ... and try to connect with that person. We're not trying to change everything about that person, we're just trying to let them know there are options out there to help them maybe go in a different path.”
It's due to that personal connection and focus on accountability that makes Beckwith believe the program will succeed.
“At some point that person might be at that point where they say, 'I need to change;' and the ability to reach out might help them,” he said. “If it helps a couple people, it's all that matters.”
Fessides agreed, saying persistence will be the key in making sure those in the program stay in recovery.
“These people do pull through,” he said. “It's not going to be on the first time. It may be on the 12th or 15th time. ... they might have to go through treatment quite a few times before it sticks, because something in that brain has to trigger.”