Blessed Sacrament, South Charleston, Parishioner Joe Deegan Shares His Story, and Discusses West Virginia’s Opioid Crisis

By Martina Hart/The Catholic Spirit
CHARLESTON — Joe Deegan recently marked his 11-year anniversary of being clean and sober.
“My sobriety day is Sept. 29, 2008, which is the Feast of the Archangels,” he says. One day prior, he and a friend had been arrested for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, due to the quantity. “I go by Joe, but my real first name is Michael. So, I really take that as a sign from God, that basically God had not forgotten about me, but that I needed to suffer some consequences in order to see that I needed to take responsibility once and for all for my alcohol and drug problem, which I did.”
Deegan, a parishioner at Blessed Sacrament Church in South Charleston, is the Business Development liaison for the Addiction Healing Center at St. Francis Hospital in Charleston, which, together with Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston, is part of the Thomas Health System. As he looks back on his own journey of addiction and recovery, he draws parallels to the issue of treatment options for people suffering from substance abuse in West Virginia and to the role of faith communities in providing support.
Deegan grew up in Bridgeport in a devout Catholic family. His father died when Joe was 1 year old, his mother when he was a junior in high school. “I had three older sisters, but they weren’t able to control me,” he recalls. “I kind of went the wrong direction.” He began drinking in high school, was drinking heavily by the time he entered college and then also started abusing marijuana. “In a very short time period my life was shambles, and so I went from praying the rosary every day and from that kind of depth of Catholicism to walking away from it all. Within three years I was bottomed out.”
He somewhat stabilized by getting involved with Franciscan friars in Morgantown and also living in a fellowship home with some protestant friends for a while. “I was there in a supportive environment,” he recalls. “I had this interaction with this group of people I had to be accountable to.” He compares it to the methods used by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) which at that time – in the early 1970s – was not readily available.
Deegan obtained a master’s degree in social work from West Virginia University and eventually moved to Charleston. “The jobs that were available were working with people with alcohol and drug problems,” he says. “So, here I was, a person that was in denial of my own serious drinking and drug problem and working in the field of addictions.” He worked as a counselor, ran a treatment center at Thomas Memorial Hospital for 13 and a half years and then worked remotely in marketing for a treatment center in Virginia. “I was sort of like what they call a ‘functional alcoholic addict,’ but I was still living in both worlds basically,” he says.
The arrest in 2008 was a turning point. He underwent treatment and joined AA where he is very active to this day. Deegan attributes part of the current drug abuse problem in West Virginia to the lack of treatment options. “In the late 1990s there were a lot of treatment centers in West Virginia, when insurance would pay for up to 28 days and pay for outpatient services,” he explains, adding that about 10-15 hospitals in the state offered those programs. “When managed care came in, that was one of the first services that got cut back pretty severely to the point where all of the hospitals got out of the business (of treating substance abuse).”
Addiction treatment services fell mostly into the hands of comprehensive mental health centers which ended up being the infrastructure for drug and alcohol treatment in West Virginia for many years. “At the end of the ‘90s OxyContin came out and at the same time drug treatment was retracting in West Virginia,” Deegan explains. “So, you ended up having more access to prescription opiates and a crumbling treatment system in the state of West Virginia at the same time.”
By 2015 West Virginia had become the epicenter of the opioid crisis with the highest number of overdose deaths per capita in the country for several years running. Deegan contacted Dan Lauffer, now chief executive officer of Thomas Health, to discuss options of fighting the epidemic. He eventually returned to Thomas Health in order to restart their substance abuse treatment program in October 2016.
“We were probably the first hospital to open up again in West Virginia a residential treatment program at a hospital,” Deegan says. “We’re transitioning right now into building a continuum of care here at St. Francis Hospital.”
The inpatient unit has been expanded to 36 beds with plans to add at least 30 more. Another floor houses an intensive outpatient program. They have been in contact with West Virginia Medicaid and the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency whose insureds had to go out of state for inpatient treatment. The program is working with various agencies and also has received grants through the state and federal governments. “If you can figure out a way to keep people engaged for five years in recovery, you’re looking at chances of them staying sober the rest of their life,” Deegan says.
He points out that they see a lot of hopelessness in patients who are in their 20s or early 30s who also have a history of having suffered abuse or neglect in their lives. “They really need a living structured setting like a sober living environment. We’re beginning to see people who have been in recovery five, seven, 10 years. They’ll go back to college and get a degree, being people who are productive citizens whereas there was no hope without the infrastructure, and that was one of the things that bothered me the most when the treatment industry basically got disassembled around the year 2000.”
He envisions a network similar to PROACT (Provider Response Organization for Addiction Care and Treatment) in Huntington, that brings together resources from the community to ensure long-term recovery. At the end of October Deegan and Lauffer met with Bishop Mark E. Brennan and Very Reverend Donald X. Higgs, Assoc. V.F., rector of the Basilica of the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Charleston, who serves on the Thomas Health Board of Directors, to discuss the program.
“Thomas Health has a religious matters agreement with the Sisters of St. Joseph to basically follow the principles of the Catholic Church in the operations of St. Francis Hospital,” Deegan says. They tie in with the spiritual principles of the 12-step programs utilized by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. In 1913 Bishop Patrick J. Donahue, then bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling, purchased a house in Charleston which became the first structure of St. Francis Hospital. It was initially administered by the Sisters of St. Francis and later by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Wheeling.
“There’s a major involvement with the Catholic Church in the foundation of AA,” Deegan adds. In 1935, Sister Ignatia Gavin, a Sister of Charity of St. Augustine, worked with one of the co-founders of AA to start services for treating alcoholics at a hospital in Akron, Ohio.
“There was a lot of stigma which is the same kind of stigma that we go through today,” Deegan explains. “There was not a major acceptance of her doing that kind of work at that hospital, but she stuck to her guns and was persistent and helped get a lot of people, in those days, into recovery.”
He notes that a lot of parishes have already rendered support, e.g. by opening their doors to AA and NA meetings. “We have convened at Blessed Sacrament, as part of our parish council, a substance use disorder taskforce,” Deegan says. On Jan. 11, the parish together with Faith Communities United of the greater Kanawha Valley will be hosting a free seminar on the issue of addiction with the goal to provide hope and education to clergy/faith leaders, people in recovery and their friends and relatives.
“We’re trying to structure some sort of not just awareness day,” he said, “but actually have some practical suggestions and recommendations to come from it.”