When Jason Neal answered the phone at his desk last week, he took a call from an individual desperate to have a family member addicted to heroin admitted to the Behavioral Health Services program at Bradford Regional Medical Center.
For Neal, a case manager with Behavioral Health Services, the urgent call for help was just one of thousands staff in the program have received over the past 30 years of the program’s existence.
Administrators of the program, which provides multiple services for people with substance abuse and alcohol addictions as well as psychiatric disorders, plan to celebrate the 30th anniversary in upcoming months.
“This year we decided that the biggest focus should be on the team,” said Jacqueline Shine-Dixon, director of Behavioral Health Services and a 34-year employee of the medical center. “We put a lot of focus in the past on referral sources and our team, which of course are very important and makes our program. But in the end it’s our team that really defines who we are.”
The team Shine-Dixon referred to are the 32 employees who comprise 421 years of service in the program. Many of these same employees often put in overtime to ensure patients get the help they need. Several also noted they aren’t in the profession just “for the paycheck” but to save lives.
“With that said, we will have a breakfast for the team, gifts for them and we’ve taken their photos … we’ll also have a proclamation with the mayor (Tom Riel) or a city official,” Shine-Dixon said, while noting dates haven’t been set for the celebrations.
In looking back on the genesis of the program, Shine-Dixon said a psychiatric unit with a couple of beds was first opened in Bradford Hospital in 1970s by Dr. Widad Bazzoui, a local psychiatrist. Bazzoui is considered a founder of the Dual-Diagnosis Inpatient Treatment program that opened in 1988. That program, which treats people dually diagnosed with a psychiatric and substance abuse disorder, grew to include five other units in the program. They include the General Psychiatric Stabilization Unit; the Alcohol Detoxification Unit; the Intensive Outpatient Program; the Acute Day Partial Hospitalization Program; and the Buprenorphine Program, which provides treatment for opiate addiction.
Mental health therapist Mike Erickson, a 21-year employee, said when the unit first opened in 1988, the typical client would have been a 40-year-old male or female alcoholic, with a few others addicted to crack or cocaine.
“Now, the majority (of cases) are related to the opioid crisis and many have multiple substances they use,” he said, explaining many patients are now much younger. “We’re starting to see the designer drugs like bath salts and it’s very prevalent for heroin to be their number one drug.”
Patients hail from all segments of society, from prevalent families to those from the poorest neighborhoods.
Another mental health therapist, Katie Wentworth, added, “There’s no perfect equation for what makes an addict or alcoholic.
“For all of (the staff), it doesn’t matter why, it matters that they’re here now and they’re a human being who wants their life to be different,” Wentworth said.
Shine-Dixon said the irony of the Dual-Diagnosis Unit, which was one of the first to open in the state, is that Pennsylvania doesn’t recognize the unit as a medical necessity. Therefore, most insurances in the Commonwealth will not pay for Pennsylvania residents to attend.
“So, the majority of our clients are from New York state,” she stated.
Neal added, “It’s unfortunate for people around town (in Pennsylvania) who I have to direct elsewhere.”
Shine-Dixon said an added plus for the programs is their location in the medical center, which can provide help for patients at a moment’s notice.
“We do utilize the rest of the hospital,” she remarked. “If we have patients who come in and are intoxicated or are under the influence of something we’re not sure of … we have the emergency department or we have the Rapid Response Team that can come right to our area and help us.”
Erickson said the rewards of the work are the telephone calls they receive from former patients who were helped six months ago or even several years ago.
“They’ll say, ‘I’m doing good and going to school or I’m getting married,’” he shared. “Every now and again they’ll say, ‘You saved my life or you changed my life.’”
While the stress is great and there are challenging times with patients who return to the program for help, the staff doesn’t get discouraged.
“It is a chronic relapsing disease … relapse does happen,” Erickson said. “Although (the patients) may feel a certain disappointment and shame,” the staff is supportive.
He, Wentworth and other staff, who include longtime clinical supervisor Carol Taylor, said the community is more forgiving of people with relapses from other chronic illnesses.
“We treat individuals with diabetes with compassion, as opposed to when you suffer from the disease of addiction,” Wentworth said. “While it (may) start as a choice, it doesn’t end up” with individuals choosing to be addicts or alcoholics.
On a final note, Neal said those who do have insurance coverage, or can afford to pay out of pocket, will likely have to wait for a bed as there is a waiting list to enter the program.
“The thing that can happen (while waiting) is they can overdose or keep using … the longer they have to wait the less likely they will get treatment,” he observed.