Just a couple of weeks ago, Mary Gotlibowski was still going from hospital to hospital, working as an emergency room recovery coach and meeting with patients who had survived a drug overdose or those who had come in seeking help for addiction.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continued to spread throughout Connecticut and hospitals began to admit infected patients, Gotlibowski and other coaches had to leave their posts in the emergency departments.
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But it hasn’t stopped them from their mission to connect people to addiction treatment and recovery services.
“A wonderful part of coaching is looking face to face,” Gotlibowski said. “We always try to bend down, we’ll get a chair and we’ll become eye to eye with a recoveree, but I’m grateful that our passion shows through the telephone as well.”
The pandemic has forced coaching programs to adjust services and move to remote operations, but advocates say it hasn’t decreased a need for addiction services -- in fact, they say some people struggling with substance use may need help now more than ever.
Gotlibowski works at Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery, or CCAR, one of the largest coaching training organizations in the state. She said whether they’re working inside hospital walls or not, they’re helping people.
“Though we certainly miss seeing their faces, we can really make it happen to the best of our ability,” she said.
National reports show that hospitals emergency rooms over the years have seen an increasing number of patients needing mental health and addiction services, especially as the opioid epidemic grew. In January, there were 1,030 patient visits across 38 Connecticut emergency departments for “suspected drug overdoses,” according to state data.
Recovery coaches often have lived experience with addiction and are in long-term recovery themselves, so they can provide peer support. They’re specially trained to work with hospital staff to link patients to detox, inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment and other services for addictions to prescription opioids, heroin, alcohol and other substances.
Domenick Galarneau, a CCAR emergency room recovery coach, said they haven’t stopped doing that. He’s been able to spend even more time with patients over the phone than he normally would when he was responding in person to multiple patients at different hospitals in a single day.
“I think we have turned a negative into a positive,” he said, “and have really made a difference by spending that extra couple minutes with that recoveree, and really making that connection so that we can help them choose whatever pathway is going to work for them so that they can find recovery.”
CCAR officials reported a recent dip in calls from the hospitals for addiction cases, but they attributed that decrease to people avoiding emergency rooms because of coronavirus, not because of a decline in the overall addiction epidemic.
“I’ve lost three people in two weeks to the opioid crisis,” Galarneau said. “I’ve gotten some people into recovery in the last couple days. We’re out here still on the front lines, people are getting into recovery and things are still moving.”
Gotlibowski and Galarneau said providing services from home hasn’t been without its challenges, but it has given them time to reconnect with previous clients, as well as coach people through the new and unfamiliar stressors they may be experiencing because of the pandemic and related social distancing.
The entire recovery community, Galarneau said, has adapted to make sure people don’t fall through the cracks.
“I mean, just today I might have seen like 25 marathon meetings for people in recovery, which means 24 hours a day,” he said. “So, at 4 o’clock in the morning there’s somebody up, drinking coffee, awake for another person that is struggling in their recovery.”
CCAR officials said they expect to be back in the emergency departments once the government and health providers declare that it’s safe to return.