Peer Recovery Saves Lives in the Inova Alexandria Hospital Emergency Department

Jeremy H. Graf, MD is board-certified in emergency medicine. Dr. Graf is the Chief Medical Officer of Inova Alexandria Hospital.

Lydia G. Haile, MD, FACEP, is board-certified in emergency medicine. Dr. Haile is Chief of Inova Alexandria Hospital’s Emergency Department.

Linda Thompson is a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist. Linda helps people struggling with addiction as part of the Help to Engage Recovery Opportunities (H.E.R.O.) program.

In honor of National Recovery Month this September, learn about Inova Alexandria Hospital ER’s H.E.R.O. program, which helps substance use disorder sufferers get into recovery with a caring hand

Addiction is a national public health crisis, made even worse by the stressors and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Initial federal data from the CDC show that drug overdoses claimed the lives of more than 87,000 people in the United States between September 2020 and September 2021. This figure represents the highest death toll since the beginning of the nation’s opioid epidemic in the 1990s, according to a New York Times analysis.

Inova Behavioral Health Services and Inova Alexandria Hospital, in partnership with Ashley Treatment Centers, have responded to the need to help affected individuals get into recovery faster with a compassionate and innovative program designed to reach more people during a substance use crisis. It is called “H.E.R.O.,” which stands for “Help to Engage Recovery Opportunities.”

Inova Alexandria Hospital’s ER is equipped to handle any emergency. However, we also understand that treating patients suffering from substance abuse crises extends far beyond simply addressing their physical symptoms. Once a patient’s acute medical needs are stabilized after an overdose, it is still the important to address why the patient overdosed and get the individual into recovery. Getting a patient into recovery faster may just change the course of that person’s life.

An ER visit for medical emergencies related to substance use disorders is an opportunity to help patients receive earlier intervention, and this more often results in earlier recovery. That’s why Inova Alexandria Hospital is taking a holistic approach.

“In the ER, we have motivated physicians and nurses and solid medication-assisted treatment protocols to help people withdrawing from substances and treating drug overdose – that part is easy,” said Lydia Haile, MD, FACEP, Chair of Inova Alexandria Hospital’s Emergency Department. “The challenge is connecting with patients and motivating them to carry the treatment through, so that they leave the ER on the road to recovery, rather than just dealing with their emergency needs. They need long-term help, and it starts with having someone there to encourage them in taking that next step.”

“Patients really respond to peer recovery specialists, who have insight and personal experience with this disease,” said Jeremy Graf, MD, FACEP, emergency medicine physician and Chief Medical Officer, Inova Alexandria Hospital. “There is no medication that I could prescribe, no center that I could send them to, that can compare to having a peer recovery specialist there in the ER to help them bridge that gap during their lowest point.”

At the program’s core is Certified Peer Recovery Specialist Linda Thompson. She knows what it’s like to struggle with addiction, and she knows how to succeed in recovery – Linda has been sober for 26 years. She approaches each individual with her signature blend of warmth, compassion, empathy, and commitment.

“I was that person once. I have been there. I meet each patient where they are and start by asking them how they feel,” Linda said. “People may not remember what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”

Patients are often more receptive to Linda than they would be to doctors or other healthcare providers. “Linda is proactive, and the connection she makes with patients is something quite different than any clinician could do. You can feel the empathy and passion that she has.” Dr. Haile said.

Linda, Dr. Graf, and Dr. Haile recently worked together to help a young woman who was going through withdrawal. She spent more than 10 hours in the ER, not only getting treatment, but talking with Linda as well. At one point, Linda remembered, the patient said, “This hospital is treating me like a princess! Why are you doing all of this for me?” Linda responded, “Because we care. That’s just how we do things here.”

Dr. Haile remembers that day well. “The clinicians tried to talk with the patient, but she wasn’t having it. Linda made a tremendous impact that day. It may have been just one person – but this was one we reached,” Dr. Haile said.

The impact of “just one” cannot be overstated, according to Dr. Graf. “These are young people,” Dr. Graf said. “Save even one, and we’re really living Inova’s mission – each person we save affects so many more lives for the better.”

Linda is on site from 2 to 10 p.m. during the week, and she is always available by phone or email to support the people who need her. Inova Alexandria Hospital hopes to expand the program in the future by adding more peer recovery specialists, with the goal of helping more people break the cycle of addiction.

“It’s personal. As busy as Inova Alexandria Hospital’s ER is, this program is personal, and when it’s personal, it becomes special. My goal is to show each patient how much their lives are worth,” Linda said. “When you come to the ER, you’re at a low point in your life, one way or another. We see patients as people with potential, not just as a disease.”

For more information on Inova Behavioral Health Services, click here. For more information about Ashley Treatment Centers, click here.

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