The Virginia Mason Story

2016 UPDATE:

During the first 12 months of this exciting 12 step call relationship with Virginia Mason Hospital, we 12 stepped 63 patients. From this success, VM has requested that we expand to  their ER department. This will officially launch this summer. Since 2015, other Hospitals in Western Washington (from Kelso/Longview to Bellevue), have begun to cooperate much closer with their local A.A. committees by offering 12 step calls to their patients.

In 2014, Virginia Mason hospitalized 693 patients with the diagnosis of alcohol intoxication or alcohol abuse. Virginia Mason is an acute care hospital and not an alcohol treatment center. They do not have a “detox” center. Alcohol dependent patients admitted to the hospital are in a medical crisis and experience abrupt cessation of alcohol. These patients are at risk for alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS), a dangerous combination of symptoms associated with significant morbidity, and safety concerns for staff and patients. Nursing and other providers feel hopeless and inadequately prepared to help these patients, particularly at the time of patient discharge from the hospital. Many alcoholic patients return to the hospital repeatedly, leaving the care providers frustrated by their inability to help the alcoholic patient with their alcoholism.

In February 2015, Virginia Mason Hospital (VMH) contacted the Greater Seattle Intergroup (GSIG) asking us to participate in their Rapid Process Improvement Workshop. The workshop was a full week with key hospital staff including doctors, social workers, psychiatrists, and nurses, with the goal of improving care, addressing the challenges of managing patients in alcohol withdrawal, and reducing the morale distress of all involved.

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous kicked off the workshop by providing information about what A.A. is and what A.A. is not, how A.A. works, and what A.A. meetings are like. We shared our own experiences with alcohol detox in a hospital setting and the role that medical professionals played in our coming to A.A. We also shared how A.A. can help and how A.A. can be contacted. We also described how A.A. founders visited patients at their bedside in hospitals in the 1930s and still do this today. Virginia Mason Hospital staff was very interested in having what they call “peer support visits”. GSIG then set up an email account specifically for 12th step requests from Virginia Mason Hospital. After the request process was defined and rolled out, A.A. volunteers awaited the first call with excitement. We felt a little like Bill waiting for the first orders for the book Alcoholics Anonymous to come in to the old Post Office Box 658.

The first call came in early April. Soon two members of Alcoholics Anonymous were sitting alongside the patient’s bed carrying the message. The patient was offered further support from A.A. members who live in her area. The patient was discharged that same afternoon and was taken to a meeting by District folks in Arlington where she lives. The hand of A.A. is everywhere. In little over a month since the first call, A.A. volunteers have visited over 10 alcoholic patients at their hospital bedside at Virginia Mason. For the A.A. volunteers, the experience has been profoundly moving and positive. Virginia Mason has said, “This is about innovation… implementing peer supported recovery via 12th step collaboration.”

In May 2015, two Virginia Mason health care professionals gave a presentation at the Area 72 PI/CPC quarterly. They helped us with the following questions.

  • How medical professionals benefit from Alcoholics Anonymous cooperation?
  • How can A.A. better cooperate with medical professionals?
  • How can Alcoholics Anonymous approach other hospitals to offer what we did for Virginia Mason? How do we get our foot in the door? Which departments and professionals do we want to approach?

Virginia Mason talked about their improved training and education for the nursing staff to combat the hopelessness and frustration of dealing with alcoholics. They described the major change around teaching the nurses to assess readiness for change in their patients. They said, “This is brand new”, and that “A.A. members also showed us that we should speak honestly to the alcoholic about the medical consequences of their drinking and that we can talk to the alcoholics in the same way that we would to a very ill patient with diabetes who refuses to change their diet or take insulin.” Assessing the patient readiness to change previously had fallen to social workers in hospitals and some patients never saw a social worker. Virginia Mason social workers have every avenue of treatment available, and A.A. is now one of those avenues.

The Virginia Mason Hospital project has been a wonderful opportunity for the Greater Seattle Intergroup (GSIG) committees and Western Washington Area 72 District committees to collaborate and work together. The committees provide pocket Big Books, A.A. meeting schedules from all over the Area, literature packets for the hospital staff and for the patients. The committees also continue to cooperate with Virginia Mason by providing A.A. panels to nursing and Emergency Room care providers. Since many patients at Virginia Mason Hospital come from all over Western Washington, and even one from Alaska, bridging the patients to A.A. meetings after the patients go home has been a collaborative effort between committees far outside the Greater Seattle Area.