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Navigators Provide Lifesaving Link to Care

Navigators Provide Lifesaving Link to Care

by Mary Beth TeSelle, Sponsored Content

As drug overdose deaths have climbed in recent years, health care providers have struggled to meet the needs of those affected and in need of care. Locally, Nevada County now ranks second in the state for opioid-related deaths.

Christine Norwood, left, and Shelly Leal serve as Substance Use Navigators at Dignity Health Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital. In their role, the navigators are available for support and information 24/7 to those in need of substance use treatment and resources.
submitted photo

Dignity Health Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital is taking action by expanding its Substance Use Navigation program from one navigator to two, thanks in part to a statewide program aimed at improving access to resources and care.

And if anyone is wondering if the navigation program works, they just need to ask Shelly Leal, a substance use navigator who started SNMH’s program in 2019. She has seen firsthand the impact the program can have on someone who has lost hope.

“I had the opportunity to work with a 28-year-old young man who was a college athlete with injuries that required Norco [an opioid painkiller],” Leal explains. “After several surgeries and several years on the medication, a teammate told him if he crushed the pills, he could smoke them and get high. This was the start of a 10-year addiction that ended up as a heroin addiction.”

Leal says the young man’s family and friends were unable to reach him. He was estranged from his family. In 2020 he came to his mother very sick in his addiction and said he needed help.

“He came to the Emergency Department and met with a provider who started him on suboxone [a prescription to treat narcotic dependence], and the substance use navigator set him up in a treatment program,” she explains. “This young man had tried many times before to get sober with no luck, but with the structure of the program and the resources it provides to people with addiction, I am happy to report he is now two years and four months sober. If not for the resources and guidance from this program, I have no doubt this young man would still be out there using.”

This young man’s success is incredibly personal to Shelly Leal.

“I have had the honor of seeing this young man go from being sick in his addiction to a happy healthy professional young man, as this young man is my son.”

Leal’s son is thriving, but sadly, many in our community struggle without knowing about the support available to them. The substance use team at SNMH wants to raise awareness of the robust program they offer.

“Substance use navigation helps people in the community connect with services,” says Laura Seeman, Director of Mission Integration and Community Health at SNMH. “We treat everyone with respect and dignity. Substance use disorder is no more a voluntary choice than any other chronic illness, like diabetes or heart disease.”

SNMH is one of 179 hospitals partnered with CA Bridge, a program that makes it possible for people who use drugs to get treatment at any hospital — whenever and wherever they need it.

CA Bridge helps to fund the programs at local hospitals and connects those in need to the resources and care available in the community (including for mental health issues which are often linked to substance use), while building a culture of harm reduction.

“Navigators provide education and can connect community members to medically assisted treatment at clinics, as well as outpatient and inpatient treatment,” says Christine Norwood, MSW, a Substance Use Navigator who also serves as Behavioral Health Liaison in the hospital’s Emergency Department. “We can also be a link to Nevada County Behavioral Health for securing funding for inpatient substance use treatment and obtaining a SUD (substance use disorder) case manager for support. We are a source of information and emotional support to anyone who needs it.”

The navigators can also provide NARCAN which is used to treat a narcotic overdose in an emergency. The medication is available to anyone in the community who needs it. (Note that the hospital does not check for warrants as this is not their role. The hospital’s goal is treatment and support.)

“SNMH provides free NARCAN kits to anyone, they don’t have to be a patient,” Seeman explains. “A person can come to the ER entrance and let them know they are here for NARCAN. You don’t even have to give your name or any information.”

Most importantly, the substance use navigation team wants everyone to know that support is available, with no judgement.

“Most people use substances—coffee, tea, wine, and more,” Norwood says. “It is a very human thing to do. A variety of factors can lead to addiction. But there is help and support available and it’s right here at your local hospital.”

Take it from Shelly Leal and her son: It is possible to get help and get healthy.

How to Get Help

Anyone can access the Substance Use Navigators 24/7 by going to the Dignity Health Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital Emergency Department. You can also reach the navigators by calling or texting 530.263.1840.

You can also visit the Emergency Department to receive NARCAN or suboxone.


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