The heart of Vineyard Healthcare

Susan Safford

While the Island may take on a serene and all’s well appearance especially at this time of year, there are many people here who struggle with addiction and alcoholism. Dr. Laura Reid and registered nurse Kelly Wheeler, trained as certified addiction counselors, spend their professional lives on the Island helping people who suffer from the illness. In addition to their medical expertise, they offer a sympathetic ear and a heightened level of understanding.

The two women make up the full-time clinical staff of Vineyard Healthcare Associates (VHA) in Vineyard Haven, where the focus is on comprehensive care for alcoholics and addicts. The facility opened four years ago and has treated hundreds in need. Dr. Reid, an internist, provides primary care services.

The clinic provides a number of detox and maintenance services on an outpatient basis, treating the multiple causes and effects of addiction on an individual basis.

“Addiction is a six-piece pie – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and financial,” Dr. Reid says. “It’s very important to pay attention to all these areas so that the risk of relapse will be less.”

Chemical treatment is provided in the form of medication to prevent seizures and to ease cravings and alleviate withdrawal symptoms, but that’s only a part of the overall treatment program.

Ms. Wheeler says, “To get the right kind of help and the right kind of support, you’re not going to find it in a traditional medical setting.”

Dr. Reid and Ms. Wheeler both specialize in addiction education. They stress that sober support, relapse prevention, and maintenance are as important as detoxification. The VHA works with Community Services Island Counseling Services, referring people who may need help with issues such as depression and anxiety, which often go hand in hand with addiction.

It is one of 27 similar facilities throughout Massachusetts founded by Dr. P.S. Kishore, who started the first such clinic in Brookline in 1996, when many insurance companies determined that they could no longer provide for long-term inpatient care.

Ms. Wheeler notes that Dr. Kishore’s plan allows for the provision of specific services at each facility based on a community’s unique needs. VHA has two part-time specialists on staff. Marcie Mueller offers withdrawal acupuncture and women’s health nurse practitioner Marcy Holmes provides a service that Ms. Wheeler, who is also a respiratory therapist and helps people with smoking cessation, stresses is tied to addiction.

“With addiction, it’s very common that health issues go untreated because they are ignored or neglected,” Ms. Wheeler says.

Dr. Reid has been interested in addiction medicine since she was a resident at the UMass Medical School in Worcester. She says, “At the hospital probably one to two out of four patients was suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction, although that was not the primary diagnosis. Addiction was sort of swept under the carpet.”

She went on to work at Doctors Hospital where she found herself drawn to patients suffering from acute detox. “I realized that if we could treat the addiction we could keep them from ending up in the hospital in the first place,” she says.

Dr. Reid served as the medical director of Gosnold, a detox in ­Falmouth, from 1986 until 1992 where she wrote patient education and detox protocols to get the program accredited so that they could be reimbursed by third-party providers. After working at the emergency room and Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and later for the walk-in clinic at Vineyard Medical Services, Dr. Reid determined that she wanted to return to working in the addiction field. She says, “I feel very privileged to work with the people that I work with. We are very fortunate in that if we can help stop people from using alcohol and drugs in self-destructive ways, we can actually help people get their lives back.”

Ms. Wheeler says, “About a year ago they passed a law that said addiction had to be treated like any other medical problem.” She adds, “It’s going to take a long before people recognize and accept that.”

Dr. Reid says, “A lot of people are really relieved when they walk in here. The level of compassion that’s offered is unique.”

The two healthcare professionals recognize the importance of providing ongoing care, not just an immediate solution. “It’s a revolving door for many people,” says Ms. Wheeler, “because it’s not only about detox, it’s about a way of life. Continuing in a certain lifestyle, people were chronically relapsing. We keep people engaged with the mindset that alcoholism is a chronic disease.”

Dr. Reid adds, “We treat people in a very nonjudgmental way. This entity exists and is set up in such a way that people can call anonymously and be honest about their use without anyone judging them or getting them into any trouble. Any info we get from any patient is absolutely confidential and can’t be shared with anyone, including family members.”

Gwyn McAllister is a regular contributor to The Times.