A 2005 case involving paramedic Michael Carey illustrated what can go wrong when a person who has dedicated their lives to helping others is overcome by the twisted logic of addiction.
Arriving on the scene of a horrific car crash, Carey, cash-strapped and high on the anti-anxiety drug Librium, frisked an unconscious woman as she lay bleeding on the ground. He stole $6,100 – money the victim, Cleotilda Maria Arroyo, was saving to buy a home in Mexico.
Carey needed the money. He had bills to pay. His addiction to alcohol and drugs had drained his finances to the point that he was even struggling to pay for his state paramedic license.
The warning signs were there. A month before the Arroyo incident, Carey failed to respond to an emergency call. Three days after the Arroyo incident, he reported to working smelling of drink. A breathalyzer test put him at twice the legal limit and he was sent to a hotel for the night to recover.
It was only after a five-month investigation that Carey was arrested for grand theft.
“I was mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted,” Carey said. “My addict thinking took over. One pill is good, 10 is better.”
His is hardly a unique case. An investigation by the Sacramento Bee revealed that in the two years following the arrest of Carey, “the state agency charged with monitoring and prosecuting substance abuse by paramedics… logged more than 65 drug and alcohol cases — up from only eight cases in 1999-2000, according to enforcement records obtained under the California Public Records Act.”
But the problem doesn’t stop there. The Bee goes on to point out that “official statistics represent a fraction of the cases because employers are not required to report paramedics who take medical leaves for substance abuse treatment. Others, The Bee found, are forced to resign, and still more are never discovered.”
With so many cases of substance abuse, it’s clear that the paramedics credo – “I can fix anything and everyone, including me,” as former paramedic and recovering addict Richard Rolston puts it – can backfire with disastrous results.
How Medications are Stolen
Boston EMS worker Brian Benoit was, as District Attorney Daniel Conley puts it, “driven by addiction rather than malice or profit.”
His crime? Stealing prescription medication for personal use. His methods are fairly typical of these sorts of cases: he would steal drugs and replace them with saline or an “inert substance” or write off the pilfered medication as “wasted – drawn for a patient but discarded before injection,” The Patch reports.
According to the DA’s office, Benoit “plead guilty [in 2015] to one count of larceny over $250… for the theft of morphine, fentanyl, lorazepam, and midazolam from more than 100 vials and syringes, and 17 counts of manufacturing, distributing, or possessing a counterfeit controlled substance for substituting those medications with saline or other lookalike substances.”
Causes of EMS Addiction and Theft
For many, addiction to prescription drugs starts with an injury. Drugs are administered to provide relief, but in some cases, the numbness and euphoria that come with it become a persistent, nagging temptation. As the physical wound heals, an emotional wound festers.
EMS workers have far easier access to these potent drugs. According to the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, this is a major risk factor for theft and substance abuse. Other risk factors include:
- Shortages of EMTs and paramedics (placing greater strain and longer work hours on existing providers)
- Increased call volumes and higher stress levels with less down time as the elderly population explodes
- Management that’s stretched so thin that there’s less direct supervision
- An overall lack of focus on making good substance abuse prevention programs a high priority
While it’s easy to demonize paramedics like Benoit, Carey and Rolston who steal and abuse prescription medication, it’s also not particularly helpful – for them or for those who may abuse drugs in the future. The news reports don’t typically delve into their personal struggles and the risk factors that lead them to substance abuse.
If we are going to make progress toward solving the problem of EMS substance abuse, we need to better recognize the signs of prescription drug addiction, abuse and theft, as well as create a path to recovery for abusers. It’s not just the more sympathetic approach – it’s the smarter approach.
At Station House Retreat, we provide a peer support environment tailored specifically for first responders. As a recovering EMS worker, you’ll be able to look around the room and see others who have lived through the rigors of the job and have been through similar struggles with addiction. It’s these common bonds that strengthen and aid long-term recovery.
Throughout our program, you’ll learn to cope with stress without turning to chemical substances. While the risk of relapse is always there, overcoming obstacles in our task model approach will help build a strong mental and emotional fortification against it. That’s our promise.