Fighting an epidemic, one step at a time

Meet the BMC nurses who help patients with their recovery.

Written by Beverly Ford

Sherri was pregnant, nearly homeless, and desperate to kick a heroin habit when she found salvation. A counselor recommended an innovative drug treatment program at Boston Medical Center that was helping to save lives and change futures.

“Heroin collapses everything. It’s a really dark place,” says the former addict, who entered Boston Medical Center’s Office Based Addiction Treatment Program (OBAT) nearly eight years ago, in her third month of pregnancy. Today, the 34-year-old Cambridge mother is off heroin and on-track to become a biomedical engineer thanks to OBAT’s  team of nurses and other providers.


Program Director Colleen T. LaBelle says the structure of the program and the dedication of its nursing staff have helped Sherri and scores of others curtail their addiction. The staff regularly treats about 700 patients, ranging from CEOs to suburban housewives, LaBelle notes.

The concept for the program, created in 2003, is simple: Evaluate patients with substance abuse disorders and provide them with a managed-care treatment plan that takes into account their social and medical needs. Treatment begins with weekly visits for the first four to six weeks, during which OBAT staffers use medication to control the symptoms of drug withdrawal and curb the addiction. A counseling program helps patients deal with other issues in their life, like jobs, housing, domestic abuse, or other personal crises.

“We take care of the whole person,” says LaBelle, noting that the program is designed not only to treat addiction but to help users rebuild their lives and relationships. Team members also found that once a patient is clean, other medical problems, like diabetes or mental issues, can be better controlled.

Data from the last five years show that 60 percent of OBAT patients test “clean” after receiving medication to control their addiction, but it’s not a total cure. Many will remain on medication for years, LaBelle says.


Still, that same data found that the program’s patients were less likely to end up in an emergency room or hospital, less likely to end up incarcerated, and less likely to die. In fact, the program’s results have been so good, similar programs have been introduced at 42 of the 53 medical centers in Massachusetts. OBAT has also won the hearts of patients and families, many of whom wrote touching notes praising the program for changing their lives.

“If it wasn’t for the [OBAT Program] I probably wouldn’t be alive,” wrote one patient.

Sherri, who remains on medication to treat her heroin cravings, credits her remarkable recovery to the OBAT’s team, saying the support, guidance, and education she received from the team’s eight nurses, psychiatrists, and other staffers, put her on the path to both recovery and success.

“I don’t know if they realize how much of a difference they made in our lives,” says Sherri, speaking for her colleagues in treatment. “We weren’t just addicts to them. We were people.”

Making that connection is important to OBAT’s staffers, who find their relationship is sometimes the only positive one in a patient’s life.

“With time and consistency, they build a trust with us,” says nurse Melanie Chambers. “We’re their family.”         

For the program’s nurses, the relationship with patients works both ways. Their reward is the joy they find in helping others.

Fighting Addiction

Addiction Treatment Nurse Care Managers

Boston Medical Center


In the midst of the current addiction epidemic, it is important to celebrate individuals making a difference—specifically, those who demonstrate the profound impact of quality, compassionate, and non-judgmental care for people with addiction.

More than 90 patients nominated these nurse managers in the Office Based Addiction Treatment (OBAT) program: Karen Hannon, Isela Wellington, Sarah McKeon, John Mannion, Victoria Adeleye, Liz Tadie, Melanie Chambers, Shauntelle Malcolm, Michelle Lima, Jessica Kehoe, Susan Dickerman, Antoneta Zyba, and Rebecca Brigham.

Following are excerpts from those nomination letters, submitted to Salute by Colleen LaBelle, representing patients of the BMC Addiction Treatment Program.

  • “All the nurses collectively and individually have their own special qualities. They are smart, educated, competent, compassionate, and all around great—they see me.”
  • “Ten years coming to OBAT. [Team is] always professional, courteous, and pleasant. Happy to be here with people who are familiar with not only addiction, but people.”
  •  “They care about us as humans, not just as patients.”
  • “If it wasn’t for the [OBAT Program], I probably wouldn’t be alive.”
  • “They work so well together…No matter what I’m going through, they always take time to listen and assist any way they can.”
  • “They are some of the friendliest, caring, genuine nurses I have ever dealt with.”
  • “The nurses here at OBAT understand that things happen. Life happens. They’re not condescending nor do they think they are above the people they serve. I drive  an hour and a half out of my way to [see them].”

The OBAT team is the best tool in Boston fighting addiction…they are second to none.”

Sponsored By Salute to Nurses 2018

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