Detox Unit Marks 10 Years Of Liberating The Addicted

March 31, 1991|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

Ray never touched a drink until he started hanging out with the guysafter work. But his casual habit of downing a few beers after a hardday or a softball game nearly ruined his life.

After 10 years of drinking heavily, stopping at bars after work and opening a six-pack as soon as he came home, Ray realized he was an alcoholic.

He was spending all the money from a part-time job on booze. His wife took their children and left. He almost lost his home to foreclosure. The U.S. Army Reserves threatened to bar his re-enlistment. Andhis supervisor at Fort George G. Meade repeatedly reprimanded him.

"It got worse and worse," recalled Ray, who asked that his last name not be used, to protect his family. "I never tried to quit; I triedto cut down. But I couldn't do it."

Trapped by his addiction, Ray sought help through the U.S. Defense Department's employee assistance program. Six months later, he hit bottom and checked into a new detoxification program at North Arundel Hospital.

Tomorrow, Ray celebrates 10 years of staying sober. Since checking into North Arundel's chemical dependency unit, he has not touched a drink.

Ray was the first patient admitted when the Glen Burnie hospital opened its 15-bed detox and counseling unit April 1, 1981.

"I was scared to death," he said. "I didn't know what to expect, whether there would be padded rooms and walls or what."

His experience is relived every day by those who use the detox unit.

Nervous patients are surprised to discover the unit looks just like any other ward in the hospital. Like Ray, they receive medical help throughout their withdrawal. And like Ray, once their bodies begin to heal from alcohol and drug abuse, they're counseled to continue treatment.

"When you've reached the late stages of chronic alcoholism or drug addiction, your body goes into withdrawal when you stop feeding it the drug," said W. Alan Hooks,director of chemical dependency services at North Arundel.

"It's very frightening for the patient," he said, referring to symptoms such as DTs, or delirium tremens, which include violent shaking, hallucinations and seizures.

"They need a great deal of close medical supervision."

Heavy drug and alcohol abusers who quit cold turkey cansuffer seizures, heart attacks and die, he said.

Since Ray received treatment at North Arundel, the hospital has scaled back its program from seven to an average stay of three days. With the rising cost of providing acute inpatient care, insurance companies no longer are willing to pay for lengthy detoxification, said Karen E. Olscamp, vice president of operations.

"Overall, the length of stay is a lot shorter nowadays because so much treatment can be done on an outpatient basis," she said.

The trend has prompted some Baltimore hospitals to alter or shut down their detox units in recent years. But North Arundel is committed to continuing its inpatient chemical dependency unit because it's the only one in the county, Olscamp said.

"We believe there really is a need for this service," she said.

More than 7,900 men and women have been treated since the unit opened 10 years ago. Another 3,738 people have received counseling in the emergencyroom but did not need to be admitted.

Patients are admitted afternurses and doctors in the emergency room determine that they're suffering the medical effects of withdrawal. Some are shaking with DTs; others are hallucinating from an overdose of PCP. All have "blatant physical symptoms," Hooks said.

The majority of people receiving medical supervision and counseling at the unit are men. Only 28.2 percent of the patients are women.

In contrast to the unit's early years, when many patients were strictly alcoholics, increasing numbers of people who abuse both alcohol and drugs are being admitted. More thanhalf the patients nowadays are addicted to alcohol and drugs.

Many are caught in a cycle of drinking to come off drugs and then snorting cocaine or speedballing -- using a potent combination of cocaine and heroin -- to get high again. Growing numbers of heroin addicts also have been seeking help recently, Hooks said.

"Personally, I'm amazed at the amount of heroin problems we've seen," he said. "There's apparently a large supply of heroin in the area right now."

Heroinand cocaine abusers often suffer from a longer withdrawal. Although the body only takes three days to get rid of the drug, addicts can suffer cravings several days later.

Cocaine addicts often aren't admitted until three days after they've quit. Then, they suffer from severe withdrawal, shaking and "climbing the walls," Hooks said.

Sixteen counselors work at the unit, helping patients realize they're addicted and need help. The biggest challenge is to convince them to seek more treatment, either through a residential rehabilitation programor outpatient care.

"We have to try and break the denial, or at least chip away at it, so we can make that treatment referral," Hooks said.

He believes that only 50 percent of the patients accept the referral.

The hospital has started an intensive outpatient programto offer discharged patients longer-term treatment. People who live too far away are referred to other recovery programs, including Second Genesis, Hope House and New Beginnings at Meadows in the Crownsville area.

North Arundel is celebrating the unit's 10th anniversary with a party. Ray plans to be there to toast the future -- with soda,of course -- and the help he received.

"I couldn't possibly put adollar value on the treatment I got," he said. "I just celebrated my25th anniversary with my wife in October, I was promoted at my civilian job, and I haven't been reprimanded once in the last nine years. My life is completely different."

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