Since the pandemic began, Ron P., 64, has relied more than ever on Suburban Hospital’s Addiction Treatment Center (ATC).
“It really makes a difference,” he says. “During this period, my anxiety has been higher. People who are in addiction treatment are walking a very fine line, and any second, for any minor reason, you can pass the threshold and relapse.”
The ATC, located a few miles from Suburban Hospital’s main campus, has been providing substance use disorder services since the early 1990s. It offers evaluation and diagnosis, individualized outpatient treatment plans for adults and adolescents, meetings for parents of teens having trouble with substance use, and a concerned persons program for those who suspect loved ones may be struggling with addiction.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the ATC remains open for its more than 40 patients so staff can continue to hold one-on-one and in-person group treatment sessions. This proved useful when another patient relapsed, Ron recalls.
“The group was trying to help him discover the reason he relapsed and how he could get back on the right path,” he says. “The concept of having caring counselors and the camaraderie among the patients is very helpful, and that’s the reason I stay.”
Ron first realized he was an alcoholic around 2015. Although he was hospitalized for detoxification twice before, it wasn’t until after the third detoxification, in December 2018, that Ron entered treatment at the urging of his wife and psychiatrist. After a month at an inpatient facility in Florida, he began treatment at the ATC in February 2019, completing a four-month intensive outpatient program that included four hours a day of counseling, five days a week.
Since then, the retired telecom executive and college professor has regularly attended group sessions at the center. He also sees a psychiatrist at Suburban Hospital for anxiety, and participates in Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART) meetings hosted at the ATC. (These meetings have been held online during the pandemic.)
Beth Kane-Davidson, director of Suburban Hospital’s Addiction Treatment Center, was thinking about patients like Ron when she and her staff made the decision to continue in-person therapy during the coronavirus pandemic. The ATC has added a telemedicine component as well to see new and high-risk patients. (Initially, new patients were not seen in person).
“Patients found themselves suddenly working from home; they weren’t able to go to self-help meetings; they weren’t able to come to programs; they couldn’t have normal routines,” she says. “The trigger to return to the drug of choice was certainly there. We needed to wrap our arms around these people and give them avenues to connect and to have the support that they need.”
Kane-Davidson is a member of the National Advisory Council for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“We work with patients to help them understand substance use disorder as a disease, the symptoms, how to remain abstinent and what the support systems are,” she says.
To remain open during the pandemic, the ATC had to institute strict cleaning protocols and keep detailed cleaning logs. Long tables were placed in one of the group session rooms to create physical barriers, and groups of more than nine patients were split into two.
Clinicians and patients alike had to adjust to face masks — clinicians couldn’t read patients’ facial expressions, and patients couldn’t necessarily see clinicians’ looks of support, reassurance and concern.
Staff also created a 31-page “pandemic toolkit,” a photocopied collection of resources, including hotline numbers, lists of online Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and an “active coping calendar.” The April 16 entry reads, “Rediscover your favorite music that really lifts your spirits.”
Kane-Davidson, who has more than 30 years of experience in treating substance use disorders, was worried that new protocols — masks, physical barriers, physical distancing during therapy, a new set of pre-appointment questions — would make patients who suffer from a stigmatized disease feel further stigmatized.
That doesn’t seem to have happened. Patients tell her they’re grateful that the ATC has stayed open. Ron even sent an orchid with a card that read, “You’ve been like my second family.”
“One of the things we pride ourselves on is that people are treated with tremendous dignity,” Kane-Davidson says. “We do patient surveys after treatment, and the No. 1 thing that comes out about what they liked best is how they were treated by each and every staff member.”
Ron says the ATC’s caring environment helped the treatment “click” for him.
“At some centers, as you see in every job, someone might be there just to get a paycheck,” he says. “Here, people are very caring, very smart and very helpful.”
Read more about how Johns Hopkins is treating substance use disorder during COVID-19.