Addiction recovery services offered in emergency rooms as overdoses increase

SAUK COUNTY, Wis.– The number of people hospitalized for overdosing has increased throughout the course of the pandemic.

“In Dane County, they have surpassed the overdose rates from the year prior. I think they doubled it within the first six months of the pandemic,” said Jessica Geschke, an outreach specialist for Wisconsin Voices for Recovery. “It’s very sad. People feel isolated, they’re alone and they don’t know where to reach out. When we get into that head space, it’s a very dangerous place to be.”

David Spannagel, the emergency department director for Aspirus Divine Savior hospital, said he’s noticed the same trend inside his hospital. Aspirus Divine Savior is one of 24 hospitals in Wisconsin working in partnership with the Wisconsin Voices for Recovery Emergency Department 2 Recovery program to offer immediate bedside assistance to those who experience an overdose.

ED2R Program coordinator Wesley Van Epps said after his own battle with an opioid addiction, he wishes a program like this was available to him when he was hospitalized several years ago.

“All the doctor could do was give me a piece of paper with three numbers and say, ‘Here are some options for you and I can’t really do anything else.’ Looking back at it now, if that hospital would have been able to provide peer support, I think my journey of recovery would have started a lot sooner.”

Van Epps said it wasn’t until a year after he was hospitalized that he finally sought help.

ED2R Peer Support Specialist Danielle Melby is one of the people who goes inside emergency rooms to offer immediate bedside assistance and resources to those who experience an overdose.

“One peer explained to me that just being there gave them a sense of peace,” Melby said.

Melby battled her own addiction as well and, like Van Epps, it took her a year after being hospitalized to know where to go to for help. Melby agrees that having someone offer help sooner would have made a big difference in her recovery journey.

As hospitals limited the number of people allowed inside during the pandemic, the 24 hospitals who partner with WVFR continued to allow the peer support specialists to enter emergency rooms of those experiencing overdoses. Spannagel said he never wanted to cut off such a critical service to those in need.

“They’re in a particularly vulnerable place at that time, and so, that peer support right then is extremely important to preventing perhaps a return visit within the hour or two because the natural inclination is to go get that fix again,” Spannagel said.

The peer support specialists do not show up to the emergency rooms unannounced. The hospital staff ask patients if they would like a peer support specialist to come and offer bedside assistance and resources, which patients can accept or decline. Spannagel said most people accept the help.

“About 60 percent of the people who have been asked take the offer to get some of these resources,” Spannagel said.

Van Epps said one of the hardest things for those experiencing addiction is finding resources. With the ED2R program, there is no searching. Help comes right to their bedside and guides them through the process.

“This program gives that individual the opportunity to stay connected with that peer support provider when they leave the ER,” he said.

Since the birth of the ED2R program in 2017, they have helped more than 1,700 people battling addiction. The program is offered through nine organizations in 19 counties in Wisconsin.

If you or someone you know is battling an addiction, help is available. The national helpline for drug and alcohol addiction is 1-800-662-4357. Help can also be found through The Satori House in Portage which will pair patients with a recovery coach. Their phone number is 608-433-7329.