Posted On Nov 5, 2022
Marie lives in the coastal town of Swampscott, in Massachusetts. Last December, she began having more and more trouble breathing. One morning, three days after Christmas, she woke up gasping for air. A voice in her head said, "You're going to die." Marie dialed 911.
"I was so scared," Marie said later. Describing that day, the 63-year-old's voice filled with tension, and her hand clutched at her chest.
Marie was admitted to Salem Hospital, north of Boston. The staff treated her COPD, a chronic lung condition that includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
After her worst symptoms subsided, a doctor came the next day to check on her. He told Marie her oxygen levels looked good and that she was stable and ready to be discharged.
NPR is not using Marie's last name because she, like 1 in 9 hospitalized patients, has a history of addiction to drugs or alcohol. Disclosing a diagnosis like that can make it hard to find housing, a job and even medical care in hospitals where patients with an addiction may be shunned.
But talking to the doctor that morning, Marie felt she didn't have a choice. She had to tell him about her other medical problem.
"He said I could be released," Marie recalled. "And I said, 'I got to tell you something. I'm a heroin addict. And I'm, like, starting to be in heavy withdrawal. I can't literally move, please don't make me go.'"
At many hospitals across the country, Marie would likely have been discharged anyway, while still in the pain of withdrawal. Perhaps she would leave with a list of local detox programs where she might — or might not — find help.
But a crucial opportunity to intervene and treat at the hospital would have been lost — partly because most hospitals don't have specialists available who know how to treat addiction, and other clinicians don't know what to do.
Hospitals typically employ all sorts of specialists who focus on critical organs like hearts, lungs and kidneys — or who treat systemic or chronic diseases of the immune system or the brain. There are specialists for children, for mental illness, for childbirth and hospice.
But if your illness is an addiction or a condition related to drug or alcohol use, there are few hospitals where patients can see a clinician — whether that be an M.D., nurse, therapist or social worker — who specializes in addiction medicine.
Their absence among hospital personnel is particularly striking at a time when overdose deaths in the U.S. have reached record highs, and research shows patients face an increased risk of fatal overdose in the days or weeks after they are discharged from a hospital.
"They're left on their own to figure it out, which unfortunately usually means resuming [drug] use because that's the only way to feel better," says Liz Tadie, a nurse practitioner certified in addiction care.
In the fall of 2020, Tadie launched a new approach at Salem Hospital, using $320,000 from a federal grant that the hospital had worked for several years to secure. Tadie put together what's known as an "addiction consult service."
At Salem, that team included Tadie, a patient case manager, and three recovery coaches — who draw on their experience with addiction to advocate for patients and help them navigate their treatment options.
What an addiction consult service brings to the bedside
So on that day, when Marie said, "Please don't make me go," her doctor didn't tell Marie she had to leave. He called Tadie for a bedside consult.
Tadie started out the treatment by first prescribing methadone, a medication to treat opioid addiction. Although many patients do well on that drug, it didn't help Marie, so Tadie switched her to buprenorphine, with better results. After a few more days, Marie was eventually discharged and continued taking buprenorphine to manage her addiction to opioids.
But Marie continued seeing Tadie for treatment as an outpatient and was able to turn to her for support and reassurance:
"Like, that I wasn't going to be left alone," Marie said. "That I wasn't going to have to call a dealer ever again, that I could delete the number. I want to get back to my life. I just feel grateful."
Among Salem's clinical staff, Tadie helped spread the word about the expertise she can offer and how it can help patients. Success stories like Marie's helped her make the case for addiction medicine — which also meant unraveling decades of misinformation, discrimination and ignorance about patients with an addiction and their treatment options.
Part of the problem, according to Tadie, is that doctors, nurses and other clinicians get very little training in the physiology of addiction and withdrawal, the medications and treatment options, and the emerging science about what works for these patients. What little training that doctors and nurses do get is often unhelpful.
"A lot of the facts are outdated," Tadie says. "And people are training to use stigmatizing language — words like 'addict' and substance 'abuse.'"
Tadie gently corrected doctors at Salem Hospital, for example, who thought they weren't ever allowed to start patients on methadone in the hospital.
"Sometimes I would recommend a dose and somebody would give pushback," Tadie says. But "we got to know the hospital doctors and they, over time, were like, "OK, we can trust you. We'll follow your recommendations."
Other members of Tadie's team have also wrestled with finding their place in the hospital hierarchy. David Cave, one of the recovery coaches at Salem Hospital, is often the first person to speak to a patient who comes to the emergency room in withdrawal. He tries to help doctors and nurses understand what the person is going through and help navigate their care.
"I'm probably punching above my weight every time I try to talk to a clinician or doctor," says Cave. "They don't see letters after my name. It can be kind of tough."
But naming addiction as a specialty, and hiring people with training in this particular disease, is shifting the culture of Salem Hospital, according to Jean Monahan-Doherty, a social worker who has referred patients to Tadie.
"There was finally some recognition across the entire institution that this was a complex medical disease that needed the attention of a specialist," Monahan-Doherty says. "People are dying. This is a terminal illness unless it's treated."