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Peers Helping Addicts Find Sobriety

A program, only a little more than a year old, at the University of Maryland Medical Center has now seen more than 2000 patients and referred more than 550 of them for drug or alcohol abuse treatment.

The Peer Recovery Team is made up of former addicts who screen those that come into the emergency room for drug and alcohol use. If it is found the person is suffering from drug or alcohol addiction, a team member works a kind of mini intervention and offers a treatment program if the person is willing.

Elizabeth Myers was willing and had all but given up hope of trying to kick her addiction to heroin. The Baltimore mother had been using drugs for twenty years.  She went to the ER for bronchitis but got the help she desperately needed.  Myers has been sober for seven months now. She has a job, a car and her children are visiting this summer.

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Myers says she lost so much time as a result of her drug use. “It was just living hell. Everyday. Wake up sick, go to bed sick. Everyday you are chasing a drug nonstop all day. You have nothing. You lost everything,” says Myers.

After speaking and working with the Peer Recovery Coach, Myers was able to meet with doctors who then prescribed medicine to help with her withdraw from heroin.

Erika Gaines has seen a lot of people addicted to drugs. She has been clean for ten years now. And Gaines who works at UMMC as a Peer Recovery Coach believes it is important to establish a relationship with the patient and explain to them that they know what they are going through when it comes to fighting off drug use.

“Sometimes people are just not going to accept what you have to offer (drug treatment) at that time. You can use that moment as a teaching moment. You can share some information about what they are using,” Gaines says.

She says support, her faith and family helped get her off of drugs. Gaines says a lot of times addicts come into the hospital and they are tired of using drugs.  She tells the patients not to give up and to keep trying if they have gone into treatment unsuccessfully in the past.

Eric Weintraub is Director of the Alcohol and Drug Division at the University of Maryland. He believes that the Peer Recovery  Coaches are invaluable to those coming into the ER and eventually going into treatment for drug or alcohol abuse.  The coaches are not clinicians. They function as part of a team and work with clinicians and meet regularly to discuss patients and the available resources.

He says there are just too many patients coming into the emergency department who screen positive for drugs or alcohol abuse to see them all. But he says they have a special focus on those patients who come into the ER after an overdose.

Every patient who comes into the emergency room is screened for a substance abuse problem. And if that gets a positive response, the Peer Recovery Coach will see them and then if medicine is needed an ER doctor or psychiatrist is contacted.  Weintraub says they have found that starting people on medicine in the emergency department to treat their withdraw there was a much greater likelihood they would show up for treatment the next day.

For Elizabeth Myers, getting sober and be involved in the hospital program meant she had to take a bus every day through the same part of the city where she bought her drugs.  “I think that was the hardest. Having to walk past it and not look back. Just have to remember where I came from and what it was like. You just have to really want it,” says Myers.

Weintraub thinks it is important for the public to hear and understand individual stories of addicts as the city, state and nation deal with the epidemic. “I think these individual stories will help the public understand. These are real people with the same wants, desires and needs like us. I don’t think anyone grew up wanting to be a heroin addict,” says Weintraub.

Myers says it makes a difference to have people in the ER who could understand drug addiction. “These people are here to help you. They will help you get out of what you are in. They will help you get over this addiction. They will not turn you away or judge you. They will work with you and help you, says Myers.