Volunteer physicians reflect on battling the opioid crisis

Portsmouth Herald

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PORTSMOUTH – Several years ago, two local physicians who had recently retired from full-time practice decided to devote their time to help address a major public health issue: the opioid epidemic. Now retiring as well from their longtime volunteer roles as providers with the Medication-Assisted Recovery program at Families First Health Center, Drs. Bob Andelman and David Gagnon reflected on their time working with patients battling opioid addiction.  

In Medication-Assisted Recovery, providers prescribe medications that help decrease cravings and withdrawal symptoms, allowing patients to focus on other aspects of their recovery.

Andelman volunteered for seven years at the nonprofit health center, Gagnon for five. In addition, Gagnon worked for four years as a preceptor overseeing the residency program at Goodwin Community Health, which along with Families First comprises the Greater Seacoast Community Health network.

Prior to volunteering at Families First, Andelman was a career anesthesiologist, working for 28 years at Portsmouth Regional Hospital and six at Wentworth Douglass Hospital in Dover.

“After I retired in 2013, I was on the Board of Medicine,” he explained. “I’d kept my license, and then my term on the board was up. I’d become interested in addiction medicine, and I was told to reach out to Families First.”

After training on Substance Use Disorder and the electronic medical records system used at Greater Seacoast, Andelman began to see patients.

Life-changing career choices

The transition from being an anesthesiologist to focusing on addiction was quite a learning curve.

“I was used to talking with my patients for anesthesia prep, but this was a totally different type of talking,” Andelman said. “I would explain the procedure, talk with the patient about their substance use disorder, how they are doing with their family situation, work, transportation issues, psychiatric issues. It was another universe for me; it definitely took a while to adjust. I look back now at how far I’d come.”

Gagnon, who was a primary care physician with his own practice in Eliot, Maine, for 15 years and later with Wentworth Douglass for a decade, was also intrigued by the idea of Medication-Assisted Recovery.

“Hardly anyone was doing Medication-Assisted Recovery, and there’s a definite need,” Gagnon explained. “I saw on the nightly news that in Europe, doctors are offering this treatment without any specialized training, reducing the rate of overdoses by 80 percent. I put it on Facebook and said everyone should know about this. At the time, I thought, ‘I can’t change the world, but at least in the Seacoast area, if we offer more treatment then there will be fewer overdoses.’ ”

Their dedication led to success of program

Tiffaney Burdick, the nurse at Greater Seacoast who manages the Medication-Assisted Recovery program, appreciates the dedication of both doctors.

“Dr. Andelman truly is such a wonderful person, physician, and an incredibly fierce advocate for his patients,” Burdick said. “Greater Seacoast Community Health has a robust outpatient Medication-Assisted Recovery Program, with 250+ active participants. He ensured that each patient received the most compassionate, person-centered care. In addition to his volunteer time seeing patients, Dr. Andelman spent countless hours expanding his knowledge and approach to the treatment of substance use disorder, for the best interest of his patients.

“Dr. Gagnon has also been an incredible resource for some of our most vulnerable patients,” Burdick said. “He has helped tremendously to bridge a gap in access to immediate substance use treatment for our patients, allowing expedited treatment options to patients who may not have otherwise had that opportunity. He really takes the time to get to know his patients and have meaningful conversations with them, in addition to providing good health care.”

Opioid addiction can affect anyone

Andelman said the biggest challenge in his volunteer work was the actual disease. He described opioid addiction as chronic, severe, and relapsing and said “it doesn’t give up.”

“Talking with my patients was a real eye-opener,” Andelman recalled. “It taught me gratitude, empathy and compassion. I saw so much in my patients that was problematic, but I had so much respect for them, trying so hard. Opioid use disorder is a disease, not a moral failing.”

He would compliment his patients who returned after a relapse.

Gagnon said society needs to realize that anyone can be affected by Opioid Use Disorder. “Everyone has a friend, relative or acquaintance who’s struggled with it. Nobody should feel it is unique to them,” he said, adding that he enjoys being at Greater Seacoast Community Health to take away the feeling of being judged that is so prevalent among patients battling addiction.

Andelman, a Portsmouth resident, is enjoying his retirement exercising and traveling with his wife. Gagnon, of South Berwick, will relocate to Florida with his wife to be closer to their grandchildren.

The Medication-Assisted Recovery program is open to primary care patients of Families First or Goodwin Community Health. More information is at getcommunityhealth.org/services/mar/

Providers interested in volunteering at Greater Seacoast Community Health may contact Lisa Zhe at lzhe@familiesfirstseacoast.org.

Greater Seacoast Community Health is a network of community health centers providing primary care, pediatrics, dental care, prenatal care, behavioral health counseling, substance use disorder treatment, mobile health services, WIC, social work services, a pharmacy, parenting classes, playgroups and home visiting. The network includes Goodwin Community Health in Somersworth; Families First Health & Support Center in Portsmouth; and the Strafford County Public Health Network. Services are open to everyone and are provided in a way that is respectful, recovery-friendly, LGBTQ+ affirming and trauma-informed. For more information, visit GetCommunityHealth.org.

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