Debra Trueax knew she was struggling with an acute substance use disorder, but she wanted to hide it from family and friends. So when she went to a hospital in 2018, she had a plan.
“I went to the emergency room looking to get a bed and for mental health and addiction services,” she said. “I knew where I could get a bed where I could also sort of on the sly get treatment for substance abuse without anyone knowing.”
But Trueax wasn’t admitted that day. She did, however, meet Michael Serrano, an emergency room recovery coach.
“You know, some of it was kind of a blur. When you’re in the emergency room, you’re not particularly clearheaded,” she said. “And so when Michael came in and introduced himself, the first impression I got was that he was just very calm, like he had time to spend with me, and it was, you know, it made me feel that, OK, here’s somebody who will sit with me and listen.”
A month later, Trueax entered outpatient addiction treatment, and one of the first people she told was Serrano, who works for the nonprofit Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery.
He’s among a group of addiction recovery specialists stationed in Connecticut hospitals, community centers and other facilities to reach more people struggling with addictions to prescription opioids, heroin, alcohol and other substances.
As the number of overdose deaths from substance use continues to climb, advocates believe that expanding the recovery coach workforce at hospitals and other institutions will make a significant impact on lowering those numbers.
“Most people that are experiencing a crisis, whether it’s due to withdrawals or they have an accident, they’re going to go to the hospital, so that is really a great place for recovery coaches to be,” said Rebecca Allen, director of recovery support services at CCAR. “From a public health viewpoint, let’s try to get upstream, let’s try to get in front of people before their addiction is really so severe.”
The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner projected that about 1,088 people will have died from a drug overdose in 2019 -- the highest number so far recorded. Final data is not yet available, but a majority of deaths will likely be tied to an opioid.
While more attention and resources have gone toward solving the opioid epidemic in recent years, experts say other types of substance use disorders are causes for concern. The state has recorded an uptick in cases involving methamphetamine, and a report released last week found a nationwide increase in alcohol-related deaths.
Allen expects that communities will have an increased need for professionals like recovery coaches going forward. Middlesex Hospital in Middletown last month became the 20th hospital in the state to implement recovery coaches, most of whom are in long-term recovery themselves.
Serrano, who celebrated five years of recovery in October, said it’s helped him relate to patients in hospitals.
“You don’t have to get too much into detail about your story, but past experiences and just let people know that, ‘I’m not here to judge you at all, I can just imagine what you’re going through,’” he said. “And just asking people, ‘How can I help you?’”
CCAR has one of the largest recovery coach training academies in Connecticut, funded with state and federal grant money. It also runs a volunteer coaching program, where Trueax, now in recovery, participates. Other agencies around the state have begun to carve out positions for recovery coaches.
Emergency department coaches originally started in just four hospitals in 2017. Program manager Jennifer Chadukiewicz said it wasn’t an easy transition, but that soon changed.
“As word got out from those first four hospitals what our success rates were and how valuable the recovery coaching model was in the emergency departments, other hospitals started to ask for it, and that changes the dynamic incredibly,” she said.
Since then, coaches have responded to more than 8,000 calls, according to the agency. CCAR employs about 18 coaches who get called into hospitals to help connect patients with addiction treatment services like detox, intensive outpatient care, medication-assisted treatment or other care.
Chadukiewicz said the program links people to some sort of service about 93% of the time.
Having the coaches work in the emergency departments has also helped educate medical professionals on addiction and recovery, Allen said.
“Because they’re not seeing people in recovery. They’re seeing people in active addiction, they’re seeing people that are cycling sometimes in and out, they’re seeing people that are many times unpleasant and difficult to deal with,” she said. “So for the medical staff to be able to see our recovery coaches and watch them and listen to them, they’ve been able to single-handedly change the stigma that’s there.”
Allen said CCAR is partnering with legislators and other organizations this year to bolster funding for the recovery coach program and other services. The agency will begin a new pilot program with the state Department of Corrections to connect recovery coaches with people as they are released from prison -- a population with documented high rates of addiction and substance use disorder.