Stakeholder Health: Inland See Road Trip, 2018
By Teresa Cutts
“You care enough to check on me?” A young man who overdosed on drugs made this poignant statement when the Quick Response Team or QRT in Huntington, West Virginia made a visit to his door. The QRT visits individuals in the community 24 to 72 hours after they have experienced an overdose, to meet people where they are, show up, be vulnerable, and engage in a discussion of treatment opportunities.
The Huntington QRT is the only QRT in the country that includes faith leaders as part of the team, but is modeled after the original one started in Colerain, OH, in response to the opioid epidemic scouring the Ohio River Valley. A member of the EMS (Larrecsa), law enforcement (Ben), and a certified peer recovery coach (Kenny) complete the team. If they came to your door, you’d see a young African American woman, a muscular white man, a jaded veteran in recovery on the other side of the jail bars and one of 31 amazing, diverse clergy.
The QRT and 20 of the 31 essentially volunteer clergy who rotate call on the team candidly shared and gave of their time, hearts and spirits in a long See2See visit this week at the home church of one of the original faith leaders, Bishop C.D. Shaw.
The QRT often follows up after the initial visit, checking in repeatedly on those persons to see how they are faring. These persons are often disconnected, stigmatized by others and in deep need of love, non-judgement and simple advice and care. The QRT believes that “…more and more people are receiving treatment because they are showing up with a consistent message… you matter. You are important. You are loved. You are a child of God. You are not alone.” Plainspoken Kenny, the recovery coach said, “We want to love them to life, not to death.”
They go to the door with no script, as each visit is different. The four team members are a jazz ensemble. If a person being visited makes eye contact with or knows the recovery coach, the rest of the team moves to the background. On one visit, three team members went outside to walk the person’s dog while the clergy spent time with him inside. Sometimes a pastor may even offer to pray and is rarely refused. Larrecsa, as a medical expert, often handles the more intimate 1:1 conversations about health needs. Family members are sometimes present. Meetings can be in the home, at parks, or in cars where people are sleeping or passed out. The QRT truly meets people where they are and may go many extra miles to help. Each had stories of driving someone the hundred miles to treatment in Charleston if they were ready. A pastor told of driving the miles in tears next to a young man “who could have been my son.”
The QRT distributes brown paper bags with health education information about substance use disorders, HIV/AIDS, treatment options and other resources, including a purple bracelet with their number. Other supplies include condoms (for safer sex and decreased infections) and, most recently, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Why a sandwich? Well, the QRT learned that those they care for often lack the most basic needs, which interferes with their ability to even try to make the first step toward recovery. Although not social workers, the team works the social dimension, too, helping persons access housing, food stamps, enrolling in Medicaid and getting to regular medical appointments for health problems, like wounds and more.
We want to make a difference
Connie Priddy, a former flight and ED nurse, coordinates the QRT program. She reached out to Bishop Shaw for the churches to provide back-up help, but the clergy wanted direct roles with the team. Initially training clergy through the Black Pastors
Association, Bishop Shaw now handles scheduling clergy team members from many denominations (and colors) for on-call rotation. The clergy basically volunteer their efforts, receiving only a small stipend. It is nice to be valued, but as one clergy put it, “We want to make a difference and help save lives; we’re not doing this for the money.” The whole team agrees that the spiritual component is critical in helping persons get and stay clean.
QRT clergy were candid about how these visits are so meaningful to them and help them feel less helpless after burying so many people, ranging from young to old, rich to poor and everyone in between. The opioid epidemic has touched people from all walks of life. One pastor shared that he simply felt he had to do more after burying a young man who had been clean for several months, but had that “just one more” hit on his 19th birthday and died. A few clergy acknowledged that getting to know persons experiencing addiction has made them less judgmental and more compassionate. And it has inevitably changed their relationship with their own members. One pastor was asked by a critical church member why the state should keep “enabling” drug use and wasting money on Naloxone to reverse overdoses/save lives, when so many relapse. The Pastor asked: “If your son was abusing drugs and overdosed, would you want the state to make sure that those kits were available to save his life, even repeated times?” As with many other diseases, stigma is itself a primary factor in the epidemic. What better medicine than a pastor who knows the reality?
The QRT’s person-centered, but effective and caring intervention is working. Started in mid-2017 with 30 unfunded visits, the team got grant money in Sept. 2017 to build the fledging program further. Not all persons beat addictions and stay alive, which grieves the team, who develop relationships with those they serve. But many people do make it with the help of QRT and others. In Cabell County from 2017-2018, overdoses were down more than 40 percent. This year to date, the decrease is around 25-30 percent. So, in the words of recovery coach, Kenny, the Huntington QRT is indeed, “Loving those with addictions to life instead of death.”