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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 09 24 21 - Tales from the Public SUD Service System

Last week I was talking with my niece about working in the human service field, for some reason this old (but true) story popped into my head. It may also have come back to me it is roughly the nine-year Anniversary of when I left the helm of the Halfway Home of the Lehigh Valley (HHLV), which at that time was located on Eighth Street in Allentown, PA. It has since moved. The Anniversary of my last day there often brings up a lot of wonderful memories of the place and the people. Serving as Program Director for 14 years remains a highlight of my career. The events in this story occurred in the early to mid-2000’s, and of course, do not include anything related to the persons we had the honor to serve.

Running a drug and alcohol treatment center involves a whole lot of monitoring. I have been told by people who have worked in other areas of the behavioral health system that we have significant higher levels of oversight. All that is a topic not relevant to the rest of this story, other than to say that it took place during such a county monitoring. Our county monitor had been nicknamed by the late Richard C. O’Donnell, an icon in the regional human services system as “Our Lady of Perpetual Monitoring.” A book should be written just about Richard. An educator with a lasting legacy, he had been a Roman Catholic priest and served the Vatican. He once escorted Marilyn Monroe to the Academy Awards when her husband, Arthur Miller could not attend. They wanted a priest to escort her. How he came to work at HHLV is another story, one he told much to my chagrin from the podium at his retirement celebration. A huge event on top of South Mountain in Iacocca Hall, at Lehigh University with all our regional elected officials in attendance.

Back to that site visit. It was excruciating. Most site visits, of which there are many, between all the funders and government entities, are not nearly as arduous. What should have taken a half day lasted sixteen hours as every word on every treatment plan was being scrutinized and discussed. Our Lady had brought a long a new county worker. We speculated she was showing the new worker how thorough a job she did. More than a few times I caught glimpses of bewilderment from this new worker. No one other than Our Lady wanted it to continue, but it went on and on and on.

Somewhere around mid-day on day two, the county monitor from the adjoining counties eyes started rolling back in her head, we could only see the white parts. These two counties had traditionally conducted such monitoring visits together and then at the end would do a joint exit interview. It made sense from a coordination of care perspective. This other county worker had completed her work with us at some point around mid-day the day before and was also at a loss to explain what was happening. She also sat and waited for the end. It was the very last such joint site visits.

These two days remain perhaps the longest two days of my professional life, it seemed to go on for weeks. At that point in the facility history, we were owned by a regional hospital network. The behavioral health line service administrator over the entire network behavioral health system had joined us for the review. He was my boss and understanding our facility performance was important. He had also never experienced anything like it before, in any of his behavioral health administrative experience, but he was also learning how much extra scrutiny substance use care gets.

At about three o’clock on day two, I had just walked out of my office into the main reception area of this old wooden building, which had been a Carriage House for horses in the 19th century. I always envisioned my desk roughly placed where the business ends of the horses must have been. There was a bright flash and a loud bang, followed by pop, pop pop sounds, which I recognized as small arms fire very close to my location. One does not get far in our field without a heightened sense of awareness, which I have extra of. I recall time slowing as I visualized all the brick buildings close around us and how high velocity gunfire ricochets. As other people in my vicinity were running at the sounds of the gunfire (which never made sense to me), I recall thinking that I did not want to die here on this day in this way during this painful county site visit. I did a swan dive onto the floor to avoid taking a round. Survival comes before dignity.

The gunfire ended. I got up off the floor. Incredibly, the county reviewers were unaware of what had occurred as it was on the other side of the building. We later learned that a person living across the alley from the facility had been involved in a serious crime. The police took him into custody. Soon thereafter, the monitoring ended (well). I got to go home that day. Everything but my dignity was intact. The swan dive to the floor became facility lore. There are so many such stories that a book or perhaps a comedy show could be written, although on second consideration it probably should not be so memorialized.

I am grateful I survived that day. I am grateful for that team and all the people in our public SUD care system who encounter a lot of difficult things in the course of their work. Things that people who have not done direct care in our public SUD care system simply cannot understand. These are my people and every day they get up and they do it again, just like I did the day after this incident. Grateful to do something of meaning with my life and to serve others, even when it has meant multiple exposures to potential physical harm, traumatic events, and loss. Most people have no idea the sacrifices and dedication of the people who do this work, often for low pay and long hours in less than ideal environments. It is worthy work helping people get into recovery. All who do it with honor and integrity are my band of brothers and sisters in service. Grateful for all of it.

What are you grateful for today?

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