LIMA — They sat in a basement conference room, the walls of which, perhaps appropriately, are painted a pale, institutional yellow.
Four women with more in common than meets the eye.
Yes, they’re all young and vibrant, well-groomed and professionally dressed. That much is quickly evident. What’s far less discernible to the average person is the checkered lives each has lived, and how they’re using their past experiences to help others in the community avoid similar pitfalls.
The women are recovering drug addicts. They’ve all spent time in prison or jail. They’ve been down and out; hit rock bottom. Each has been drug-free for nearly a decade, and today they are state-certified counselors in a program developed by the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to help others who find themselves in a position of addiction and/or substance dependency.
They are full-time employees of Coleman Professional Services, based in Lima, and they’re dedicated to sharing their life struggles with others who find themselves in similar situations. Their goal is saving lives.
Abby Vorhees, Sara Hollar and Heather Ruble are three of the eight members of Coleman’s Quick Response Team — a fledgling group of former addicts who give of their own time and bolt at the drop of a hat to area emergency rooms to reach out to people who overdosed on drugs, primarily heroin and opioid painkillers.
The team was formed 18 months ago after Kelly Monroe, associate director of the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Allen, Auglaize and Hardin Counties, authored a grant request and submitted it to the state.
A three-year federal grant in the amount of $176,000 annually, administered by the state as part of its Medication Assisted Treatment-Prescription Drug and Opioid Addiction Program, was awarded to the board.
“Our community was seeing a significant number of people coming to hospitals in the area for treatment of opioid overdoses,” Monroe said. “Our board decided we needed to do something to help out, to make sure they (overdose victims) knew what services were available in the community.
“We approached Coleman Professional Services and asked if they would be able to administer the program. They were very interested.”
And thus, the Quick Response Team was created.
‘Our clients were dying …’
Lisa Ashafa is the director of peer services at Coleman and has been an integral part of the team since its inception. She said the void in intervention services available locally was painfully evident.
“There was a real need; our clients were dying left and right,” Ashafa said. “In one week back in 2017, I lost three clients in one week to overdoses. Three deaths in three days. Boom, boom, boom. It was like being hit in the head with a hammer. It really shook me.”
Later that same year, with funding now in place, the Quick Response Team was up and running, complete with a stable of “peers” — state-certified volunteers who themselves are recovering addicts – manning a crisis hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The local Mental Health and Recovery Services Board even provided a physical space for the program to operate, allowing Coleman staff to utilize the basement of the board’s Lima office on Elizabeth Street.
The backbone of the program relies on a close relationship between emergency room personnel in five area hospitals — two in Lima and one each in Bluffton, Kenton and St. Marys — and the Coleman Quick Response Team. Staff at those emergency rooms have been asked to call the hotline every time a person is brought in for treatment of a drug overdose. Working on a rotating on-call schedule, a “peer” from Coleman will head to the emergency room in as little as 30 minutes of receiving a call to meet with the overdose victim and attempt to provide that person with solace, comfort and information.
Why do they do it?
“If we don’t, who will?” asked Ruble. “We can tell them, ‘We’ve been there; we’ve been in your shoes.’ And sometimes, when they learn we are recovering addicts, it changes things. They listen to us a little more. We are able to share things with them that others who haven’t been in our position can’t.”
From prison cell to hope
Vorhees, who like the other women interviewed has been a peer counselor since the program’s inception, is a recovering addict with more than nine drug-free years under her belt. She has spent time in seven jails and two prisons for repeated drug abuse and the poor choices that go hand-in-hand with that lifestyle.
“It took prison and a program I found there called Tapestry — which includes intensive behavior modification training — to change my outlook on life,” Vorhees said. “I prayed about it.”
After her release, Vorhees met a Coleman employee, who suggested she consider a career as a para-professional substance abuse counselor.
“And here I am. At one time I took heroin or anything that help me would mask the pain,” she said. “I lived in a tent in a woods. Today I own a woods … and a home.”
Vorhees uses hard lessons learned earlier in her life to attempt to help those who are battling addiction today.
When Vorhees gets a call that an overdose victim has been brought into the emergency room, “I will go and sit with the person until they are discharged. It used to be that someone who overdosed would automatically be arrested, but that’s no longer the case. They have 30 days in which to seek treatment to avoid arrest.”
Vorhees will attempt to persuade the victim to accompany her to Coleman’s crisis stabilization unit in Lima immediately upon leaving the hospital. Some agree to go; most don’t.
“If they’re not willing, I still try to follow up with phone calls or attempt to get them to schedule a follow-up appointment or an assessment.”
“Hope is the basis of our job,” Hollar said. “Even if (overdose victims) don’t want to meet with me, I’ll always leave resources for them to look over.”
Most overdoses reject help
Ashafa said males in the 24 to 35 year-old age group make up the largest segment of individuals team members meet in emergency rooms. Since the program’s inception in December 2017, the Quick Response Team has reached out to 70 persons who overdosed and subsequently found themselves in an emergency room setting.
“Only a small fraction have taken the steps necessary to turn their lives around,” Ashafa said. “It’s sad that the majority have not chosen to become engaged in some type of treatment.”
Shelly Nagel, trauma program manager at Lima Memorial Health Systems, said there has been “somewhat of a decline” in the number of overdose cases seen by ER staffers at that facility. But she called the Quick Response Team a “valued resource” in the ongoing battle against opioid abuse.
Ruble said trauma is the “underlying issue with most of the people we see, but every addict’s story is different. Many of the people we deal with don’t have anyone left in their lives; they’ve burned all their bridges. Their will to live is nil.”
Vorhees added, “You have to change people, places and things to battle addiction. It’s about starting a whole new life, and it’s a grieving process. There’s a lot involved in kicking an addiction — a lot more than simply stopping using.”
The drug culture holds a powerful grip on some members of the community, the Coleman recovery coaches said.
Take, for example, April 20. As the 20th day of the fourth month of the year, 4/20 (pronounced four-twenty) is slang in cannabis culture for the consumption of cannabis.
This year is was also synonymous with multiple drug overdoses in and around Allen County.
“I had six overdose calls in 24 hours,” Vorhees said. “Four of the six were from girls who ate edible gummy bunnies. They thought they were eating pot, but it was laced with fentanyl. These girls didn’t know they were doing fentanyl.”
Hollar said drug dealers don’t care about the victims of their trade. She said others in the community many times also take a dim view of victims of overdoses.
“Some people don’t see the value of a junkie’s life,” she said.
But don’t count the “peers” from Coleman among that group.
Ashafa, herself recovering from a mental health issue, said the dedication of members of the Quick Response Team is unparalleled.
“Anyone working in this field has to have compassion and a heart for other people, ” she said.
And if the “peers” in the Coleman program don’t match the physical stereotype of recovering drug addicts? Well, that’s okay, too.
“Our primary focus is to shatter the perceptions and stigmas that accompany addicts,” Ashafa said.