Q: You work with women dealing with opioid abuse ― what does that involve?
A: I’m a nurse case manager for the Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome program with Aetna Better Health of Kentucky. I engage pregnant women who have significant opioid use or substance use disorder to get them specialized prenatal care, and I continue care management through the first year of the baby’s life to help them both stay healthy.
Q: What motivated you to make the transition from traditional nursing?
A: When I was a NICU nurse at University of Kentucky’s Children’s Hospital, I always wondered what happened to the families when we discharged them. After they left the hospital many new moms would call to talk to the nurses who took care of them, because they’d formed a trusting relationship. When I found out about the neonatal abstinence program, I felt that it had been custom-made for me. I saw a way to expand my nursing skills and bring my NICU experience full circle.
Q: How do you coach someone who has a substance abuse problem?
A: When I first speak with someone, I do a general assessment of her situation. We start a conversation around why she is on a certain medication, or why a urine drug screen was positive. Then we set goals. I want her to tell me what is important to her at this time in her life. Sometimes it’s staying sober, but often it’s also finishing her GED or college degree, or getting a job. We set short-term, medium and long-term goals to give her something to work toward, which can boost confidence and improve feelings of self-worth.
Learn tips for tracking and achieving your health goals.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge your patients face?
A: Environment is a big challenge. When a mother admits she’s using again, it’s often because she’s going back to the same living situation that supported her previous drug use. Often there is no other place to go. Addiction can also interfere with your body’s ability to feel intense joy ― like a mother’s euphoria that helps her bond with her baby. It can take time for the brain to recover from addiction, and it is during this time that counseling is key.
Q: What kind of feedback do you get from the women you work with?
A: They are amazed that someone cares, especially their insurance provider. Often they say they feel judged in other situations. So they’re relieved that there is someone out there who listens and gives them an outlet to talk openly about their questions and concerns.
Q: What would you like to tell readers about the people affected by opioid addiction?
A: I remind folks that no little girl said, “I want to be an addict when I grow up.” The first time someone takes a drug, it usually is a choice. But once addiction has started, the choice is gone. And sometimes there are other reasons for drug use, like terrible abuse or self-medication for mental illness. Explaining addiction this way opens the eyes of many people and exposes addiction’s complexities.
Q: What do you like most about your current role?
A: I enjoy going to the hospital and seeing the mothers and babies in person. Especially when I have worked with the mom for a while ― visiting the hospital may be the first time I get to see the woman in person, and I love congratulating her on her beautiful baby.
Q: Where is your favorite place to visit?
A: Northern Virginia, where I grew up. I love visiting with my husband and two teenage sons, because even though I’ve lived in Kentucky for over 20 years, Virginia is still home. My parents and grandmother still live there ― my grandmother is turning 100 in December!
Q: What’s your health ambition?
A: I recently lost 60 pounds, but have gained a bit back. I really want to maintain a healthy weight and exercise more. I don’t want to feel like a hypocrite by not practicing what I preach about living a healthy lifestyle.
Q: What was your most fulfilling professional moment to date?
A: In the NICU I always worked with very sick newborns, which is very rewarding. But the first time I worked in a labor room and got to place a healthy baby on the mom’s chest was amazing. I’ll always remember sharing that special moment and thinking “what a miracle!”
Q: Do you think you’re making a difference in battling the opioid epidemic?
A: Every time I have contact with someone, I think I have the chance to put my voice in her head. So maybe on a bad day, she’ll remember there is someone she can call who will listen and offer assistance. If just one person I had contact with thinks twice about using and remembers that someone does care, that is an impact.
About the author
Emily Leland is a writer and marketing professional living in Charleston, SC. Her goal is more exercise, less caffeine and finding balance as a working mom.