The opiate abuse epidemic has impacted every corner of society, including nurses. But a successful recovery program in Pennsylvania are helping the health professionals get sober and back into the workforce.
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Erin Darby was one of the faces of the growing epidemic 5 1/2 years ago: a nurse who got addicted to drugs.
"I had a c-section with my daughters and I got this horrendous infection afterward, and my doctor put me on pain medicine. And for me, that's where it started. I had the keys to the candy shop, and it was so easy for me to be able to take something," said Darby.
Darby is now back on the job, and clean and sober, thanks to Pennsylvania's Nurse Peer Assistance Program, known as PNAP. The group is led by a former registered nurse, Kathie Simpson.
"About 18 percent of nurses will become addicted as some point during their career. For the general population it's 10 percent," said Simpson.
WPXI went through the nursing board disciplinary records from February 2016 to February 2017. Of the 641 cases, 70 percent involved prescription drugs, street drugs, or alcohol. The percentage of cases stayed the same at the local level.
"Many times, when they come to us they have developed an addiction, typically because of a stress related illness: often times migraine headaches, back pain, stomach problems....Nurses tend to care for everyone but themselves, they put themselves last," said Simpson.
Pennsylvania recognized there was a problem and initiated an advocacy program for nurses who need help managing the criminal justice system and help getting sober. Since PNAP started in 2009, it has helped nearly 5,000 nurses. The program includes three years of strict monitoring, inpatient treatment, counseling and random drug tests.
Data show nurses who complete the PNAP program have a relapse rate of just 3 percent. That's far lower than the relapse rate in the general population, which is up to 60 percent.
Attorney Ansley Westbrook used to prosecute cases against addicted nurses. Now he represents health care professionals who face significant legal consequences.
"As real as addiction is, and it's real, and we see it with the opiate crisis and we see it everywhere, so recovery is as real as addiction is," said Westbrook.
Westbrook said he wants prosecutors to understand that through PNAP's solid treatment program, nurses can overcome their addiction and be upstanding citizens once again.
"What we have now is a nurse who is going to do a wonderful job and what we don't want to do is make them unemployable and put them on welfare by taking an overly punitive approach to the criminal process," said Westbrook.
"I know there's a stigma that comes with drug addiction. There's a lot of judgment and finger pointing, and I just really want to help other nurses. If they have a problem, there is a solution," said Darby.
"People ask me what I do for a living, and I say I get paid a very good wage to watch miracles every day," said Simpson.
Simpson said the one thing she believes the state should to to help is make in-patient programs mandatory. She said inpatient treatment has a higher success rate than outpatient.
While many people are concerned about patients being hurt by nurses who are addicted, that's a very rare occurrence. Since PNAP began in 2009, there have been only two cases where a patient was hurt by a nurse who was addicted, out of the 7,000 nurses who were referred for treatment.
If you, or someone you know, is in the nursing field and facing a substance abuse problem, PNAP can help. Contact them by calling 1-877-298-7627 or visiting www.pnap.org
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