Caring for the Caregivers

Headshot of Greg Freeman, physician CVPH Medical Center.

How Greg Freeman and the Occupational Health & Wellness team at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital (CVPH) help employees with substance use disorder who seek treatment build a plan for recovery and see it through.

CVPH Helps Workers Overcome Substance Use Disorder

Greg Freeman understands too well what a difference compassion makes for people with substance use disorder. His brother struggled with opioid addiction for 17 years after he started taking OxyContin to combat pain from injuries sustained in a car accident. Eventually, doctors stopped prescribing him opiates out of concern that he was “drug-seeking” rather than in need of treatment. In 2013, Freeman’s brother committed suicide.

“I really got to witness the trauma that he went through,” says Freeman, supervisor of Occupational Health & Wellness at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital (CVPH) in Plattsburgh, N.Y.

In his role at CVPH, Freeman realized he had the opportunity to provide employees the support that his brother proved was so essential. Freeman became a champion of an existing hospital policy of assisting employees with substance use disorder and expanded its reach.

“If there’s anything possible that we can do to save our family members and our employees’ family members from going through something like that, we’re going to do it,” Freeman says. “It was really important to bring that message back and to deliver the message to our employees that, ‘We’re here for you.’”

Freeman helps those with substance use disorder who seek treatment build a plan for recovery and see it through. That plan usually includes treatment at an outpatient program in the Plattsburgh area or an inpatient stay at a clinic in Pennsylvania that Freeman considers well-suited to health care workers. In some cases, CVPH helps employees with the financial aspects of seeking treatment and allows them to reimburse the hospital through payroll deductions.

 “We’re asking our employees to give everything they have to the care of the patients they’re working with, and we’re going to do the same for them,” Freeman says.

Director of Clinical Services for the CVPH Medical Group Carol Brown, RN, still gets choked up when she describes the hospital stepping up to remove those financial barriers so she could get the help she needed back in 2004 when she was working as a case manager in Utilization Review/Discharge Planning.

“If it had not been for CVPH, I don’t know that I would have been able to continue in my profession,” says Brown, who fought alcoholism and drug addiction, “because I was really on a downward spiral.”

“They made it possible for me to get my life back”

CVPH directs supervisors who have “reasonable suspicion” that an employee has substance use disorder to follow certain steps to protect patient safety, including a referral to Occupational Health & Wellness to assist them with treatment.

Because the hospital is committed to helping these workers, Freeman says, supervisors need to understand the indicators, behaviors and susceptibilities of a specific substance use “to make sure that we’re being fair, and to make sure that we’re always providing safe patient care.”

CVPH employees struggling with addiction are encouraged to approach Occupational Health & Wellness on their own to ask for help. The support program for those with substance use disorder is part of CVPH’s longtime drug and alcohol policy and is emblematic of the hospital’s supportive culture. The program operated quietly until Freeman decided to call attention to it, hoping to combat the stigma that keeps people from coming forward in the workplace.

At a hospital leadership meeting in 2015, he arranged for three employees who had completed the program to share their experiences. Brown was one of the presenters. Freeman then arranged for a half-dozen more presentations to various groups of CVPH staff.

“As a result of that, so many people started coming out of the woodwork and saying, ‘Me, too,’ ” Brown says. “What Greg put together, it reached far and wide. It was just absolutely incredible.”

Michelle Griffith had battled opioid use disorder for a decade when she landed a position at CVPH as a senior performance improvement analyst. Over the years, she had lost several jobs because of frequent absences, when her addiction left her debilitated and forced her to call in sick.

“I had been struggling with addiction my entire adult life and kind of had been living two lives,” she says today. “I was just trying to hide this thing.”

In her first seven months at CVPH, Griffith started showing up late for work more than she should, she says. Then, she caused a serious car accident and was arrested for driving under the influence. That resulted in legal and financial difficulties.

Today, Griffith recalls the experience as a blessing; it forced her to seek help.

She met with Brown, a friend and coworker in the same department. Brown took her to Freeman.

“I was just amazed at how he went out of his way to help me that day,” Griffith says. Since that day eight years ago, she has remained in recovery.

“They made it possible for me to get my life back,” she says. “They were just very flexible and made it possible for me to do the best I could for myself.

Work is Crucial to Recovery

Among more than 400,000 nurses in New York state, 15 percent to 20 percent of them battle a substance use disorder, according to Joyce Nebush, Adirondack regional coordinator for Statewide Peer Assistance for Nurses (SPAN), a support, education and advocacy program for all state-licensed nurses struggling with addiction. That’s higher than the estimated 12 percent of all New Yorkers with substance use disorder, Nebush says.

SPAN has an exceptional relationship with CVPH and Freeman, Nebush says. CVPH asks its nurses who are in recovery to sign a back-to-work agreement when they return from treatment that requires them to attend weekly SPAN group support meetings. CVPH is the only hospital in her region with this requirement, Nebush says.

“I brag about CVPH every place I go,” she says. “They believe in the disease concept (of alcohol and drug addiction). Consequently, they have compassion for a nurse or any worker with substance use disorder. I don’t find that anywhere else.”

The New York State Board of Education’s Professional Assistance Program evaluates nurses who want to seek treatment and allows them to stay on the job provided they have not hurt anyone, do not pose a public threat, and have embarked on a stable recovery. Under the state’s rules, those who qualify must undergo monitoring, including random drug screens for up to two years, show they have a plan for sobriety and cannot work nights, do overtime or handle narcotics, Nebush says.

Other hospitals have terminated employees once they disclosed their substance use disorder, but Freeman says taking away the livelihoods of people with substance use disorder only harms their chances at recovery. Work is crucial. It can offset feelings of shame and worthlessness, relieve financial pressures inherent in addiction and provide stability.

At CVPH, Freeman stays in contact with the monitoring program and helps the employee stay on track. If necessary, the hospital re-assigns nurses who might otherwise have to administer narcotics, the class of drugs that include opioids.

Nebush says CVPH has encouraged more nurses who struggle with addiction into recovery. “If they know there’s compassion there, they won’t hesitate to come in and say they have a problem.”

Freeman says he is gratified in the work he does.

“Taking care of the people who care for our patients is central to who we are as an organization,” he says. “Helping those with substance use disorder who seek sobriety is part of that effort.”

 This story was reported by Carolyn Shapiro, with the UVM Health Network.

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