Addiction Alliance of Georgia opens new treatment center

Effort arose from partnership between Emory Healthcare and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation

She is a 44-year-old Atlanta resident battling addiction to alcohol and stimulants, including Adderall, a medication prescribed for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The woman, who asked not to be identified to protect her privacy and professional career, got treatment for her addiction, remained sober for nearly six years but then relapsed amid the isolation caused by the coronavirus pandemic after she used OxyContin, an addictive painkiller.

Since June, she has been sober with the help of a 12-step recovery program as well as the outpatient therapy and medication she is receiving through a partnership between Emory Healthcare and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Called the Addiction Alliance of Georgia, the partnership opened a new treatment center on the Emory University Hospital campus this year with plans to help more than 2,000 patients each year by 2027.

“They have good therapists out there,” the woman said of the new center, calling her experience “transformational.” “It just makes life more manageable. The emotions aren’t as intense. I can sit with uncomfortable emotions. I can wait them out. I can realize that cravings are temporary.”

With the help of nearly $10 million in donations, the new Emory Addiction Center is scrambling to save lives amid the opioid overdose epidemic, a lingering crisis that is killing thousands of Americans every year. Drug overdose deaths rose by nearly 15% over the last two years, hitting a record 107,622 in 2021.

Much of that was driven by deaths involving fentanyl, a powerful painkiller. The number of people fatally overdosing on that drug has jumped by 15% in Georgia, from 610 during the last half of 2021 to 702 in the first six months of this year.

In 2020, Americans had a higher chance of dying from an opioid overdose than car wrecks or gunfire. Meanwhile, life expectancy in the United States dropped by nearly a year in 2021, from 77 to 76.1. The drop is largely attributed to the coronavirus pandemic, but drug overdoses contributed to the decline.

The alliance’s new center is seeing patients from across Georgia and accepts medical insurance as well as Medicaid. It is providing free care to those who cannot afford it while raising donations to help more needy patients.

“We are definitely growing pretty much exponentially,” said Dr. Justine Welsh, the alliance’s medical director and Emory Healthcare’s addiction services director.

Welsh and her colleagues are also helping people who have developed psychoses from using highly potent marijuana or who are using other substances, including kratom, an herbal supplement derived from trees in Southeast Asia and sold widely in stores across the United States. Some people say it boosts their energy and relieves pain. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved any uses for it and has warned it appears to have properties that can expose people to the risks of addiction, abuse and dependence.

Meanwhile, the center is making an impact outside its doors. Since October, for example, at least two people who work there have administered naloxone — an opioid overdose reversal medication — to revive people they found in distress in the Atlanta region. The newspaper obtained records from the Atlanta and DeKalb County fire and rescue departments that confirm the dates and locations of the incidents they described, though the patients could not be reached for comment.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Dr. Elizabeth McCord, a psychiatrist who treats patients at the center, was driving to an appointment on Oct. 19 when she saw a group of people hovering over someone lying near a Texaco service station on Lindbergh Drive near its intersection with Piedmont Road.

McCord said one of the bystanders told her the person, whose lips were gray, used kratom and had overdosed a year ago. McCord sprayed naloxone up the patient’s nose and revival came within seconds. Emergency workers soon arrived and took over.

“This is the first time I have done it and I don’t think it will be the only time,” McCord said. “It was a shock to the system.”

Andy Gish, a registered nurse at the treatment center, has trained her colleagues, patients and their families how to use naloxone, including Fredetra Chapman, a patient care coordinator who works at the center.

On Nov. 10, Chapman was picking up a meal at a Mexican restaurant near Stone Mountain when someone alerted her about a person experiencing what was thought to be a seizure. Chapman told them to call 911 and then found the woman slumped over in the restaurant’s bathroom. Her eyes were rolled up in the back of her head, she was struggling to breathe and she had a glass pipe in her hand, Chapman said. Chapman sprayed naloxone up one of the woman’s nostrils. Seconds later, her eyes opened. Emergency medical workers arrived and gave her another dose. Bystanders who knew the woman, Chapman said, speculated she had probably used cocaine laced with fentanyl.

“I was glad that I could help her,” Chapman said, “and that the rescue squad was right behind me.”

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta