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Health Matters Advocates: Compassion crucial in safe, effective drug abuse treatment

Tribune-Democrat - 8/26/2023

Aug. 26—Kristin Shorts and Joe Hornick credit drug treatment programs with helping turn their lives around, but they say it was the human connection that made their treatment successful.

Both former addicts shared their stories with The Tribune-Democrat to show that drug treatment works and can turn people with substance abuse disorder into law-abiding, functioning members of society.

"I found a community of people who want the same thing as me — to get clean and build something out of their lives," Hornick said.

"We are chronically ill, not hopelessly bad," Shorts said.

Hornick tried several times to get clean, but only succeeded when he got into treatment for himself instead of others. He found human connections in the 12-step program that he joined after completing the initial treatment.

"I think having someone to talk to is key," he said. "The one thing I really found in the 12-step program was having somebody who could relate to the problems I was dealing with."

Shorts said she was only going through the motions to recover, but encountered people who changed her attitude.

"My third time in rehab, I had no plan to get clean," she said. "I went because I was forced to go."

A counselor and a technologist were able to reach her.

"One woman never made it seem like I was wasting her time," Shorts said. "I manipulated everybody and told them what they wanted to hear, but she made a difference and connected on a human level."

Hornick has been drug-free and in recovery for seven years, and Shorts has been clean for eight years.

Their success stories illustrate the importance of compassion in addressing substance abuse, Cambria County Drug Coalition Executive Director Natalie Kauffman said.

"Everybody in recovery had someone who showed them compassion," Kauffman said at the coalition office in the Crown Building.

That's the philosophy behind the coalition's Compassionate Outreach for Recovery, which distributes small bags of supplies to reach those in active use. The bags contain first aid supplies, including wound care kits to help lesions associated with the horse tranquilizer xylazine, also known as tranq.

There is also a pamphlet with information about treatment options and Narcan, the anti-opioid overdose nasal spray. The pamphlet encourages those ready for help to call 814-243-9718 anytime to be connected with an on-call caseworker with the Alliance Medical Services treatment program.

"That doesn't mean we are condoning drug use," Kauffman said. "We understand you might not be ready for treatment today, but we don't want you to die while you're getting ready."

The program is supported with a grant through the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies.

The COR bags, along with the distribution of about 100 units of Narcan every month in partnership with the Cambria County Drug & Alcohol Program, are among local efforts to reduce overdose deaths and promote recovery.

Drug abuse was identified in the latest Community Health Needs Assessment as one of seven focus areas to improve the health of the community.

The Center for Population Health spearheads the assessment in partnership with the United Way of the Laurel Highlands, Conemaugh Health System and the 1889 Foundation.

Center for Population Health Executive Director Jeannine McMillan said the issue of drug abuse has brought a community response.

"The Vision Together 2025 Health and Wellness Committee continues to work with several agencies dedicated to addressing substance use in our region to seek collaborative approaches, implement best practice programs and identify funding opportunities," McMillan said.

"As evident by the many new initiatives highlighted at the recent Community Health Summit, there is much work being done to address the needs in our communities, which will have a tremendous positive impact on the lives of individuals in our region."

Kauffman said local efforts are showing progress, pointing to a decline in overdose deaths in Cambria County.

Overdose deaths peaked at 94 in 2016 and dropped until 2021, when the COVID-19 pandemic and an increase in fentanyl use pushed the number to 94 again.

Last year there were 88 fatal overdoses in Cambria County, including 77 during the first eight months.

So far this year, there have been only 36 overdose deaths, Kauffman said.

Meanwhile, the Cambria County Drug and Alcohol Program has expanded its Rise Project to place counselors with at least a master's degree in all 14 school districts in the county.

The Rise Project is meant to address unmet mental health needs that are often at the root of substance abuse in children, Drug and Alcohol Program Administrator Fred Oliveros said during the county Health Summit earlier this month.

"I've worked in Cambria County for 33 years," Oliveros said. "This is one of the most rewarding and important projects I've been involved with."

The counselors will be supplemented by interns from Indiana University of Pennsylvania's master's degree program in clinical mental health counseling.

Both Shorts and Hornick said the Rise Project sounds encouraging.

"It's 100% the direction to go in," Shorts said. "We need that upstream prevention. We have to go upstream and figure out why they are falling in."

Both Shorts' and Hornick's substance abuse stories go back to their high school days.

"It turned into more than just partying on the weekends," Hornick said. "I couldn't function without something in me."

Shorts had both alcohol abuse and mental illness in her family, which she described as "markers" for the risk of substance use disorder. Her marker was triggered during her high school partying days.

"I thought it was just normal things kids do, but it was like the dragon in me," she said. "It just went from there."

After high school, both were able to maintain relatively normal lives at first. Shorts went to college and Hornick worked in construction, traveling the East Coast for work.

"They'd say, 'Joe's a good worker, but ...' " he recalled. " 'Joe's a good worker, but sometimes he spends a long time in the bathroom. Joe's a good worker, but sometimes he throws up on the roof.' "

Both recognized they had a problem and entered treatment to get clean — several times.

Both experienced overdoses.

At one point, Hornick considered himself in recovery because he was only drinking alcohol. He was drunk and had an argument with his older sister after he found she was still using drugs.

"Initially, I was just jealous," he admitted. "I found drugs in her purse and I overdosed. ... My mother had to walk in the room and find me blue from the overdose."

An ambulance was called, and Hornick was revived with Narcan, but continued to use the drugs.

It was "a number of overdoses later" that he decided he'd had enough and entered a treatment program.

Shorts' overdose came at another person's house.

"They just dragged me out on the porch like garbage," she said. "Luckily, my friend called an ambulance. They Narcanned me."

Shorts now works with substance use disorder patients through Alliance and stresses the importance of understanding each human's value.

"We have come a long way," she said. "What happened in the past is not who I am."

She said it's still difficult to talk about what her life was like, but added that it is good to see people are more open to the discussion.

"It still feels like this weight when I say it out loud," Shorts said, "but this isn't a back alley. We can talk about it. We do recover. The stigma doesn't stick. I want to stop that."


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