SPRINGFIELD, Ore. — It’s 7:30 on a Thursday morning in Springfield. The lobby and emergency room at the McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center are deserted, all except for room 16–the designated ‘safe room’ where the drunk and the high can come down slowly.
This morning’s occupant is a 72-year-old man intoxicated, depressed and exhausted. He has almost surely been here before.
“A lot of times we will see people come in, sometimes weekly, daily, with the same problems. And they’re actually their life’s getting worse and worse. It’s hard to watch them deteriorate,” said Mick Kerrigan, Director of Emergency Services and McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center.
Kerrigan has been on the battle lines of substance abuse for 35 years. As the emergency room manager, the registered nurse has seen thousands of people just like the man in room 16. In fact, elderly patients are one of the fastest-growing populations of those with substance abuse problems. Many of them are addicted to pain medications.
“But we also see people who come in who have been addicted for years, and they’re only 12, 13 years old,” Kerrigan said.
Kerrigan says in the old days their motto was simply ‘Treat and Street,’ patching people up and sending them on their way. That approach didn’t work very well, Kerrigan said, “because we’re just perpetuating the disease.”
So now the motto is “Treat and Rehabilitate.” It doesn’t rhyme, but it does work. The key is making sure that patients get the social services they need to stop the revolving door.
For his efforts on the front lines, on Wednesday Kerrigan will receive a community service award from Serenity Lane, one of Eugene’s leading treatment centers. At its annual foundation breakfast, Serenity Lane will recognize six professionals across the area who contribute to the treatment of alcohol and drug addiction.
“(It’s) to identify people who are important in the addiction field that are helping people and not getting the recognition they should get,” said Dr. Ronald Schwerzler, Medical Director at Serenity Lane.
Dr. Schwerzler says people like Kerrigan play a crucial role in addiction medicine. He wishes there were more cooperation between treatment centers and other health organizations.
“I think all private and nonprofit and every health plan should get together and try to treat the addict as best we can,” Dr. Schwerzler said.
Schwerzler, who himself has been in recovery for 17 years, says addiction has always been with us, but the drugs are shifting and the patients are getting younger.
“What I’ve seen now is heroin addiction has entered our teens and our twenties in this state. When I came here I would have nobody in residential that was addicted to heroin. Now I have about 20,” Schwerzler said.
Back in the ER, the man in room 16 is almost ready to leave. The staff will try to find him a bed in a treatment center, but only if his insurance will pay. No matter what, the room will not stay empty long.
For more details on Serenity Lane’s breakfast, including a full list of this year’s honorees, click here.