How doctors and addicts are teaming up to save lives

Published: Nov. 22, 2019 at 3:25 PM EST
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The opioid crisis is taking tens of thousands of lives each year in the U.S. In one of the country's hardest-hit areas, doctors and recovering addicts are teaming up to save lives.

Nicole O'Donnell works all hours in the busy emergency room at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia, ground zero for the city's opioid crisis.

"One bag can kill someone. One decision," she said.

O'Donnell is a certified recovery specialist. Her job is to push users toward treatment the moment they're revived from an overdose. When she walks into a room with someone who has just come back from an overdose she tells them: "I've been here. What do you want to do not to die? And then we navigate them there."

It is support O'Donnell wishes she had when she overdosed 10 years ago. She also lost her sister to opioids.

"I want to be the person that she didn't have," O'Donnell said.

She teamed up with the University of Pennsylvania in a new radical program that uses the ER not just to treat overdoses but to help tackle addiction.

"We are the frontlines of the opioid crisis," says Dr. Jeanmarie Perrone.

Doctors including Perrone prescribe medication to prevent opioid cravings. And people who work in recovery, like O'Donnell, counsel patients into rehab next door.

"Their presence at the bedside has just made a pivotal difference. Patients who say, 'I'm not interested right now, thanks doc.' Ten minutes later Nicole walks out of the room and says he's going to do it. He's ready," Perrone said.

Devin Kloss overdosed seven times.

"Absolute rock bottom," he said.

Then he met O'Donnell.

"She came, picked me up, and told me it was going to be alright. So far, you know, everything is going very well," he said.

The results are resounding so far with an estimated seven out of 10 people sticking with treatment. Penn Medicine hopes to receive federal funding soon for the program. The state is also offering cash incentives to hospitals that guide addicted patients toward treatment.