When an individual struggling with drug dependency contacts the Kodiak Community Health Center’s MAT program, chemical dependency counselor Helen Shepard says the first thing their staff does is make sure the individual is safe.
Second, and perhaps most important, she adds, is that they show the patient that they are seen, that they matter.
“With MAT, we are meeting patients where they are in that moment,” she says. “When we have a patient who comes in or calls, we try and get them in as fast as we can, because if we don’t grab them when they call, we can lose them.”
Shepard has spent more than 10 years working with those who struggle with substance use disorders, and it is not easy. While she has helped hundreds of clients recover from chemical dependency, she knows that relapse is a very real possibility.
But after joining the MAT (Medically Assisted Treatment) team at the Kodiak Community Health Center last year, she’s hopeful that newer treatments could yield more successful results.
In 2022, Providence Alaska provided $17,500 to help support the Kodiak Community Health Center’s MAT program, which since 2019 has been offering medical intervention for those struggling with drug addiction. MAT is an evidence-based treatment that greatly increases opioid recovery rates. Providers can treat patients with the medications suboxone or sublocade to help block the rewarding effects of opioids. Depending on the treatment, the block can last up to six weeks, giving patients time to work through their addiction.
With only one other clinic on the island, family medicine specialist Dr. David Silbergeld said KCHC’s program is in great demand.
“The challenge in our community, and many small communities in Alaska, is that there is a drug problem,” Dr. Silbergeld says. “This program is awesome because we need it. There is so much stigma around substance use, and this is a way we can help. It’s always remarkable to see our patients motivated to get better. There is no judgment here, just help.”
Unlike traditional programs that often have requirements attached to participation – such as eliminating contact with peers, attending counseling or staying sober – KCHC’s MAT program is a harm-reduction model with a no-strings-attached philosophy.
“That is the foundation of the KCHC MAT program,” Shepard says. “If they want counseling, I will offer it. If they just want to see a doctor, we can do that. Our goal is immediate treatment.”
Part of that means making sure their patients have basic necessities. Often, Shepard says, a patient will come in after having been kicked out of where they were staying, running from an abusive partner or just wandering in off the streets. They may have sold everything they owned to pay for their habit. So, the MAT team spent $2,500 to put together backpacks filled with such necessities as sweatshirts, socks, energy bars and other snacks, toothbrush, toothpaste, and Narcan nasal spray, which can save a life during a drug overdose.
“Some come to us with literally just the clothes on their back,” Shepard says. “We would be rifling through our breakroom looking for food for them. These packs have sweatshirts, protein bars, bus passes … things they need right now.”
“It is hard for them to focus [on recovery] if they are cold or hungry,” says Jenny Keegan, KCHC’s grant coordinator, who helped secure the supplies. “This sends the message, ‘You are being cared for.’”
“Sometimes it is the little things that show someone how much you care,” said MAT clinic director Dr. Curtis Mortenson. “The backpacks are a small way we can provide for our patients’ basic needs and show them that we care. We hope that they provide a ray of hope to those who receive them.”
Mortenson said Providence’s financial support has helped further the MAT program’s efforts at bettering the Kodiak community, one backpack at a time and one patient at a time.
“Over the past 10 years I’ve seen increasing numbers of patients and community members affected by opioid use disorder,” says Dr. Mortenson. “I’ve seen it tear families apart, literally and figuratively. For many addictions there is very little we can do medically, but for opioid addiction there are effective medical treatments. I’ve seen them work in many of our patients.
“Our goal at KCHC is to connect with as many patients suffering from opioid use disorder as possible in hopes of saving their lives and also giving many of them a second chance to be good parents, employees, community members, etc.”
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