EUGENE, Ore. — An estimated 500,000 Oregonians suffer from alcohol or drug addiction. But one organization in Eugene is doing its best to fight the problem — along with some help from the community.
It’s 7:30 on a Thursday morning in Springfield. The lobby and emergency room at the McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center are deserted. All, that is, except for Room 16, the designated ‘safe room’ where the drunk and the high can come down slowly.
This morning’s occupant? 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,” says Mick Kerrigan, director of emergency services. “And their life’s getting worse and worse. It’s hard to watch them deteriorate.”
Kerrigan has been on the battle lines of substance abuse for 35 years; the registered nurse has seen thousands of people just like the man in Room 16. In fact, he says, elderly patients are one of the fastest-growing populations of those with substance abuse problems, many of them 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 says.
Kerrigan says in the old days their motto was simply ‘treat and street,’ patching people up and sending them on their way. It was an approach that didn’t work very well.
“Because we’re just perpetuating the disease,” Kerrigan says.
So now the motto is ‘treat and rehabilitate.’ It doesn’t rhyme, but it doe 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, Kerrigan on Wednesday will receive a Community Service award from Serenity Lane, one 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.
Dr. Ronald Schwerzler, medical director at Serenity Lane, says the idea is to, “Identify people who are important in the addiction field that are helping people and not getting the recognition they should get.”
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,” Schwerzler says.
Schwerzler, who has been in recovery for 17 years, says addiction has always been with us, but these days 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,” he says. “When I came here I would have nobody in residential that was addicted to heroin. Now I have about 20.”
Back in the E.R., 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.
Here is a complete list of this year’s honorees:
Addiction Professional: Linda Hill
Community Leadership: Ron Chase
Community Youth Leadership: Alec Apparcel-Damon
Human Resources/Employee Assistance Program: Pat Straube
Legal Professional/Uniformed Public Service: Tom Speldrich
Healthcare Professional: Mick Kerrigan