An angel called Hazel

An angel called Hazel

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It can be a long and dreary season for people who suffer the disease of addiction. Fortunately for Islanders, Hazel Teagan is here.

Substance abuse counselor Hazel Teagan, in the Martha's Vineyard Hospital chapel.
Substance abuse counselor Hazel Teagan, in the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital chapel.

Ms. Teagan has been helping people with addiction problems for almost 40 years. While working as a registered nurse at Boston City Hospital, she started volunteering as a nurse at Pine Street Inn, an organization that helps the homeless. “Nobody wanted to do it because it was messy,” she says. “I loved it.”

When the opportunity arose, Ms. Teagan took a certification course in addiction, worked in the addiction clinic at Boston City Hospital, and eventually helped to create a program at Quincy City Hospital for addiction treatment.

On the Island, her unmistakable passion for her work becomes obvious as she talks about the service she provides at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.

Ms. Teagan helped established the hospital’s short-lived detox and rehab program, and was instrumental is setting up the Vineyard House, a facility that provides a safe environment for those in early recovery from alcohol or drugs. She and Diane McCullough are the counselors for the hospital’s current substance abuse program.

“What feeds me is not money,” says Ms. Teagan. “It’s seeing people put their lives together and all the people who are affected.” She adds, “Every one who dies takes a hunk out of your heart. You feel powerless.”

The two counselors make up the substance abuse program, and supply an impressive and daunting amount of service. One of them is always on call. They provide consultation and referral to anyone visiting the hospital with alcohol or drug complications, along with anyone who calls or stops by looking for help. They refer people to addiction counseling and to Vineyard Healthcare Associates, which provides a number of outpatient services for substance abusers.

Ms. Teagan encourages people to attend 12-step programs. “There are many and they work,” she says. “You don’t have to talk to anybody. Just go and listen and have a cup of coffee. Take that hand that’s offered.”

The 73-year-old Ms. Teagan, repeatedly referred to as “an angel” by those whom she’s served, says, “I find it personally satisfying. I don’t see it as a job. I see it as a philosophy, and I never give up on people. I know people who have gone to detox 40 times. But the time that [treatment gives back to them] positively impacts their family and friends. It’s keeping them alive, keeping them productive at their job. The goal is sobriety, but people relapse. It’s part of the disease.”

Ms. Teagan points out that the Island has the highest per capita incidence of alcoholism in the state. She recognizes that there are still attitudes in society about addiction, but she is nothing but sympathetic to the plight of ­addicts and alcoholics.

“I know the suffering because I’ve watched it, and there is suffering,” she says. “Who the hell wants that as a disease? You hurt yourself. You hurt your family. Nobody wants that – it just happens.”

When inpatient care is necessary Ms. Teagan will make the arrangements for admittance to an off-Island detox program, but she explains that a bed search has become increasingly difficult. With budget cutbacks, several facilities have closed, and the options for people with no insurance or insufficient insurance are drastically limited. “There are days when I’ve made 30 phone calls for people,” the tireless Ms. Teagan says.

One man who recently celebrated his third year of sobriety remembers trying unsuccessfully to secure a bed. He says, “I finally gave up, but [Ms. Teagan] didn’t give up on me. One day I decided that dying was better than living like this and I prayed that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. The next day I got a phone call from the detox. Hazel had kept calling for me. If it wasn’t for her persistence, I’d be dead. I owe my life to her.”

Says another woman with almost five years of sobriety, “I’d made the decision to check myself in someplace but just didn’t have the strength to keep up the fight. I was losing my resolve, but Hazel advocated for me and fought for me as if I was a family member and I finally got a bed. I could tell that she was as relieved as I was.”

Ms. Teagan understands the disease as well as the bias and attitude that people face in seeking help. “Over 50 years ago, alcoholism was proclaimed a disease by the medical community,” she says. “It affects the mind, body, and spirit. It takes away the person who was there. It takes away the soul.” She adds, “They’re so hurting when they get to us.”

One man who’s been sober for 13 years talks about meeting Hazel on Christmas day after he came home to his family after an all-night binge. “She told me I was going to get help. She didn’t ask me, she told me. She got to my heart. I heard her. I didn’t want to get sober. I didn’t want to go to meetings. She actually walked me to my first meeting in the hospital. I can honestly say I love the women. She saved my life. I hope people know how many lives she’s saved.”

Says the woman with five years sobriety, “Of all the family members, friends and AA members who had told me that my life was worth saving, Hazel was the one I believed.”

Another recovering alcoholic remembers, “I almost died in 2004. The morning after, whose face was before me but Hazel Teagan’s. She said, ‘Your family doesn’t want you back unless you stop drinking.’ She’s definitely instrumental in my path to recovery.”

Ms. Teagan bemoans the fact that there aren’t more Island resources for addicts and alcoholics. “We desperately need an intensive outpatient program (IOP) on the Island.” she says, “Ideally we would have a crisis stabilization unit that would deal with mental health and addiction. Vineyard Healthcare has really helped us tremendously, but you need to have 24-hour coverage.” She adds, “When people come back from detox they fall between the cracks. With fractured care you’re putting a band-aid and a safety pin on, and they don’t get the care afterwards and you wonder why you have relapses.”

For more information, call the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital – 508-693-0410 – and ask for the substance abuse counselor.

Gwyn McAllister is a regular contributor to The Times.