Navy veteran Sherée Heller suffered from depression, panic attacks and severe migraines. For 30 years, she was taking up to 20 different medications a week to help combat her medical conditions.
“My doctor had me on so many different daily medications,” says Sherée. “I didn’t want to be on medications anymore, but I knew I needed help with the process in case anything happened to me.”
In March 2015, Sherée was admitted to a local hospital. From there, she was transferred to the Addiction Medicine Program at the MemorialCare Center for Mental Health & Wellness at Community Hospital Long Beach. The program is designed for patients who might face medical risks if they experience withdrawal on their own.
“When Sherée arrived, she had been on a lot of sedatives-hypnotic medications,” says Mario San Bartolome, M.D., medical director, Addiction Medicine Program, Community Hospital Long Beach. “She was on medicines that could impact someone’s psyche and ability to cope. She came in almost like a numb person – as a shell.”
Since the program is part of a hospital, other medical conditions can be addressed. For Sherée, her addiction, depression, migraines and panic attacks were all treated simultaneously.
“I told myself if I’m going through withdrawals, I’m doing it once,” says Sherée. “I watched the clock. Like the saying goes, ‘take it one day at a time;’ that was too much for me, so I started breaking it down. Finally, one breath at a time was all I could manage.”
Dr. San Bartolome began to formulate a plan to manage her withdrawal symptoms. The first stage of treatment was getting her off medication that could cause seizures during withdrawal.
“She was having neurologic side effects,” says Dr. San Bartolome. “The goal was to keep her alive and not let the withdrawal take over. We needed to ease the nervous system to a point where it wouldn’t cause negative effects that were detrimental to her. During withdrawal management, we use medications very strategically – they act as our tools. We were using various medications to combat her side effects.”
The second goal was to help Sherée re-program the way she viewed chronic pain and the use of medications and non-medication alternatives. Depression and anxiety can impact how people view pain.
“When you come off of pain pills or other sedatives, one of the most common side effects is anxiety,” says Dr. San Bartolome. “We needed to walk Sherée through that period of coping and retrain her to see what was appropriate for chronic pain.”
Overcoming addiction is not only a physical process, but emotional. The care team met with Sherée to determine goals for herself.
“I hadn’t driven for two years because I didn’t want to get pulled over and have all these drugs in my system,” says Sherée. “I wanted to be able to drive again. I wanted to be able to go grocery shopping for my family and be active in my family again.”
After six nights in the hospital, Sherée was discharged. However, detoxification is only the first step in the long process of recovery. She began weekly follow-up appointments with Dr. San Bartolome.
“We had to amplify the goals we set while she was in the hospital,” says Dr. San Bartolome. “We talked about the various ways she could deal with her medical issues. We discussed what was safe for her and created an acute pain action plan for recurring things, like her headaches. Seeing her frequently helped reinforce the plan. As soon as patients don’t have access to someone who can answer their questions they revert back to old coping mechanisms, like self-medicating.”
After time, Sherée’s follow-up appointments became less frequent. She now sees Dr. San Bartolome less often. At home, Sherée is focusing on her health and uses positive distractions to cope with life challenges or stressors. She finds joy in dancing, especially to 80’s music.
Sherée is completely off narcotics and has accomplished her goals. She drives herself and is enjoying time with her family. “It’s like a whole new world,” says Sherée. “I appreciate everything that I couldn’t see before. I’m enjoying life again.”