Mass General recovery coaches know the life, the language, the pain and the work required to remain drug-free.

When a young mother from Everett, Mass., talks with Michael Phillips about her struggle with drug addiction, she knows she has a sympathetic ear. That’s because Michael, a recovery coach with Massachusetts General Hospital, is three years into his own recovery from heroin addiction.

“They see someone who cares,” Michael says of the patients who come to him for help and support. “Whether it’s a scheduled visit or me answering their phone calls late at night, it means a lot to them.”

Recovery coach Michael Phillips treats addiction patients
Recovery coach Michael Phillips

Shannon Donnelly, 27, cradled her infant son in her arms as she talked with Michael recently at MGH Everett Family Care about her life as a single mother trying to keep heroin addiction behind her.

“If I ever feel tempted, I can call him,” Shannon says.

Powerful Peer Support

Michael offers peer-based support that boils down to, as he says, knowing when to listen and knowing when to speak with empathy. He is one of seven recovery coaches hired as part of Mass General’s Substance Use Disorders Initiative, a hospital and community-based effort to reduce substance use and improve the lives of patients, their families and their neighborhoods.

The coaches are all several years into their own recoveries from substance use disorders — they know the life, the language, the pain and the work required to remain drug-free. Their experiences create a connection with patients.

“They offer hope when many patients feel hopeless,” Sarah E. Wakeman, MD, medical director of the initiative, says of the recovery coaches. “To actually see someone who was in their shoes and who is now in recovery, doing well and with MGH – that’s incredibly powerful.”

Addressing an Epidemic

“With a recovery coach, it’s probably the first time they’re able to talk openly without any remorse or shame,” Michael Phillips says. “I’m not a family member who might judge them.”

The Substance Use Disorders Initiative is Mass General’s effort to create a model of care in which people with substance use disorders are identified and treated over the long term. The program, funded at $2 million a year, connects MGH’s Emergency Department, Psychiatry Department, inpatient and outpatient units, primary care practices and community-based services. Its goal is to provide greater continuity of care and reduce relapses and readmissions. The Boston-area communities of Everett, Chelsea and Revere, where addiction is a leading health issue, are a major focus.

Michael and the other coaches help shape patients’ treatment plans. They also provide advice and attend peer support group meetings with patients. The coaches’ special role stems from their intimate understanding of the world of recovery programs and the legal system – worlds that are largely unknown to medical professionals who are not specifically trained in addiction medicine.

Honest and Essential Feedback

But the coaches’ primary responsibility is to first connect with a patient to determine where that individual is in the recovery process, says Martha Kane, PhD, clinical director of the initiative. Patients are typically more open with a peer than they are with a medical professional, she says, so the honest feedback a recovery coach gathers is essential to treatment.

Read more articles about Mass General's Substance Use Disorders Initiative
Read more about Mass General’s Substance Use Disorder Initiative:

“The recovery coaches’ insights are invaluable,” Dr. Kane explains. “Their information on the system and their assessments of patients is important. They’re viewed by the medical professionals as equal partners.”

Michael, 30, grew up in Medford, Mass., where, after breaking his ankle playing basketball, he first became addicted to prescription oxycodone and then street-supplied heroin. Down to an unhealthy 104 pounds at the age of 17, Michael realized he needed help. It was a long journey of recovery and relapse before he finally found his current path of sobriety.

An Ally Against Addiction

Patients know this about him and feel safe. “With a recovery coach, it’s probably the first time they’re able to talk openly without any remorse or shame,” Michael says. “I’m not a family member who might judge them. I can just sit here and talk to them and be an outlet for what they want to say.”

Like Michael, Shannon moved from prescription painkillers to heroin, which she last used in April 2015. Recovery is not easy, she says, but she’s determined to do it, especially for the sake of her children.

“Michael is going on three years now so I see him as an inspiration,” Shannon says. “When I look at Mike, I know it’s possible. I know I can make it through.”

For more information about the Mass General Substance Use Disorders Initiative or to make a donation, please contact us.