On the Front Line: The Drug Treatment Counselors

The opioid crisis and its devastating impact on individuals, families and communities are frequent topics in the news today.  All too often, we hear of another star, a local teen or a soccer dad who has overdosed on prescription drugs like oxycodone, Dilaudid and fentanyl or the illegal drug, heroin. 

What’s less well known is the role  AFSCME members play every day, helping to fight this crisis. Council 5 members are involved at every step of the battle, from working with addicted moms and their babies, to providing drug counseling, to dispatching ambulances for overdoses, to serving as probation officers.  Workers say it can be distressing, but when they’re acting to save people from overdoses or helping them fight addiction, they say it’s also incredibly fulfilling.

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Patricia Hediger was working at a methadone clinic a few years ago, waiting and waiting for a patient to arrive, when a cab came speeding up.

The taxi driver jumped out, saying he could not wake the patient up. She was inside the cab, unconscious.

“She was blue already,” Hediger said.  “It appeared she had shot up in the cab. We called 911, we did CPR, but we couldn’t revive her. She died on the scene.”

With nearly 40 years of experience between them, licensed alcohol and drug counselors Patricia “Pat” Hediger and Lori Zobel have too many stories like this. The AFSCME Local 2474 members work with people admitted to the 500-bed HCMC (now Hennepin Healthcare), including the emergency department and acute psychiatric services. They help patients try to change their lifestyle and thinking patterns, and discover their motivation to be sober.

“Both Lori and I have seen a lot,” Hediger says. “One minute we can be thinking everything is going great, I got so many people into treatment, and then you may have somebody who overdosed and had to be intubated and went into cardiac arrest and passed away.”

Zobel has lost clients who got sober in treatment or jail, started using as soon as they got out, and fatally overdosed because they didn’t have any tolerance built up.

Hediger has seen people in the throes of addiction sell their bodies, rent out their kids or steal to afford their habit. Counseling people through addiction takes an emotional toll.

“I used to take everything home with me,” Zobel says. “With women who had kids, I wanted to take their kids home with me. I realized I’m not going to last if I don’t figure this out. I just keep in mind all of the good things that happen and remember that the bad things that happen aren’t because of me, it’s because of choices people made long before I came along.”

The path into addiction varies. Young people may experiment with drugs or try to numb physical or emotional pain. Adults may have taken pain pills for surgery, then find their medication is no longer handling the job because their tolerance has increased. They can’t get new prescriptions, so they go onto the streets. If they can’t find or afford prescription painkillers there, they may turn to heroin.

“These are professionals,” Zobel says. “They’ve got families.  And pretty soon, before you know it, it all comes to an end. Their tolerance continues to increase. They’re using more. They’re draining their bank accounts. They’re stealing from work. They’re losing their jobs. They’re losing their families. It all kind of snowballs."

“The withdrawal from opiates can be really painful,” she adds. “People will do whatever they need to do and use whatever they need to use to relieve them from that pain.”

Treatment is not easy.  Treatment is work, a tool rather than a cure-all, Hediger says. She tells patients she’ll help them and walk alongside them, but they’re the ones who will actually do the work: They have to want to be sober.

“One person may get it on their first or second attempt, another person may have to go 15, 16 times,” she says. “My belief is there is no such thing as them having too much treatment or too many attempts. Never stop trying.”

As difficult as their job can be, both women say that above all, it’s rewarding.

Hediger has a plaque on her office wall filled with words like empathy, encouragement, listening and hope.  A patient and her sister gave that to Pat as a thank you gift for saving the patient’s life. She told Pat those words represent everything the counselor meant to her.

“When people tell me you saved my life, I say, ‘No, you saved your life. I was just there to be able to watch you.  You gave me the privilege of watching that happen,”’ Zobel says.

Our series "On the Front Line" examines some of the many ways AFSCME Council 5 members are helping to fight Minnesota's opioid crisis.

Read the full series:

Helping Moms and Babies

The First Line of Defense

Calling 911

The Probation Officer