Chesterfield firefighter/paramedic and peer recovery specialist Dan Athey
Every so often, somebody unexpected comes into your life and helps change it for the better.
For Richie Wilson, all it took was a phone call.
Back in July, Wilson was experiencing symptoms of early-stage withdrawal from opioids when he collapsed at home. Unsure if it was a seizure, or what exactly was happening, his father quickly called 9-1-1 and Chesterfield’s Emergency Communications Center dispatched a unit from Fire and EMS.
Wilson declined a ride to the hospital, but agreed to a follow-up visit from Fire and EMS’ Mobile Integrated Healthcare (MIH) team. The next morning, he answered a knock on the door; standing outside was Dan Athey, a firefighter/paramedic and MIH’s certified peer recovery specialist.
Wilson immediately noticed the brightly colored tattoo sleeves that cover both of Athey’s arms and thought, “This is my kind of guy.”
At that moment, Wilson had no idea how right he was.
They sat in the living room and talked for more than an hour, Wilson recounting the ups and downs of his 10-year battle with an opioid addiction that began with a 9mm kidney stone and prescription pain medication.
Then Athey, a man he literally had just met, shared his story – specifically, his own struggles with alcoholism.
“He said ‘You’re not alone,’” Wilson recalled. “I was coming off a pretty hard substance and I was feeling crappy. Even doctors don’t understand how your brain works. They think they do, but they don’t. It takes an addict to really understand an addict. When Dan said he’s a recovering alcoholic, I was like, ‘Wow, you’re just like me.’”
Wilson recently shared his experiences with Chesterfield’s Department Constituent and Media Services in recognition of National Recovery Month, in the hope that it might help somebody who is currently dealing with addiction.
Athey came to a career in Fire and EMS very much by accident. He enrolled at VCU and majored in Criminal Justice with the intention of becoming a police officer, but once mistakenly signed up for a Emergency Medical Technician course that turned out to be non-refundable.
He started volunteering with a rescue squad in Richmond and enjoyed the excitement of running new and interesting calls multiple times every shift. After graduation, he decided to complete paramedic training and was hired by Chesterfield Fire and EMS in 2011.
Over the next six years, Athey got married, started a family and held down a full-time job all while battling his addiction to alcohol.
He stopped drinking on April 29, 2017, and has been sober ever since.
About two years ago, Athey began an assignment with the MIH unit, which was established in Chesterfield in 2014 as an outreach program to county residents following calls for emergency services.
“With people who call 9-1-1, it’s not always because they have a true life-threatening emergency. Oftentimes they call because they don’t know where else to turn,” said Lt. David Bigelow, MIH program director. “If 9-1-1 is kind of a safety net, MIH is the safety net for the safety net.
“Our job is to sit down with people, get to know them a little bit, build a relationship and find out what their life is like outside the context of the 9-1-1 call, where we typically have a limited amount of time to assess the situation and figure out what we can do to help,” he added. “By connecting the person to available resources, such as Social Services, Mental Health Support Services, nonprofits or any number of other organizations, we’re able to alleviate their need to call for non-emergency reasons and decrease our calls for service in the process. That allows us to leave ambulances and fire engines available for true life-threatening emergencies.”
In response to America’s escalating opioid epidemic, Fire and EMS developed a partnership with Chesterfield’s Community Services Board (CSB) in 2017 that integrated a peer recovery specialist into the MIH team. MIH also began receiving reports anytime Fire and EMS administered Narcan to revive somebody who had overdosed on opioids in the county, enabling the peer recovery specialist to provide follow-up services to citizens struggling with substance use disorder.
“There’s a lot of stigma, shame and judgement with substance use disorder, which we are actively working to counter. What we found is that a peer, being someone with lived experience in recovery, is often able to lower the barriers people have put up, so they can admit they need help, in a way a uniformed firefighter/medic or law enforcement officer is not necessarily going to be able to,” Bigelow said.
Likewise, working as a MIH firefighter/paramedic alongside the CSB’s peer recovery specialist was an enlightening experience for Athey.
“Meeting with people in the recovery community, going to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, hearing their stories, a lot of those things from my past started to come back around: ‘Oh, yeah, I did that.’ Then it was like, ‘That’s familiar. Wait a minute, I did that too,’” he said.
Last year, Athey completed a 72-hour class and 500-hour internship to become a certified peer recovery specialist. Shortly thereafter, the CSB’s peer recovery specialist moved on to a different job, creating a critical vacancy in the MIH team.
Now Athey serves Chesterfield simultaneously as a firefighter/paramedic and peer recovery specialist.
“You don’t necessarily have to have the same person wearing both hats. You can have two different people, one to handle the clinical piece and the other to do the peer piece. This was just happenstance the way it went with me,” he added.
For Richie Wilson, it was more like serendipity.
Under the direction of Dr. Allen Yee, operational medical director for Chesterfield Fire and EMS, MIH launched a program earlier this year to help residents break the cycle of substance use disorder – which represented more than a third of MIH’s total referrals in 2022.
A key element of the program is providing Suboxone to mitigate the debilitating health impacts that opioid addicts experience during withdrawal, helping them stay off drugs long enough to access resources for treatment and recovery. Even without insurance, a 5-day Suboxone regimen costs just $17.
“We’re the only fire department in the state right now that’s doing this, which is cool but kind of sad at the same time. It’s low-hanging fruit. It’s cheap and you literally have a list of people who are struggling. We know exactly where they are. Go knock on the door and talk to them,” Athey said.
During his initial conversation with Wilson, Athey asked him if he’d be interested in getting started on the medication. Wilson recalls it as “a moment of clarity.”
“Everything about addiction tries to say you have this under control – you have a job, you’re doing OK – but I most definitely did not,” he said. “I realized I had better take this opportunity because I might not get another one.”
More than two months later, Wilson is clean, putting in the hard work on recovery and has regained custody of his 1-year-old son.
“Now I have something more important than myself. I remember crying over him, thinking ‘I have to get off this stuff and give him a better life,’” he added. “He doesn’t deserve to have an addict for a father. I want to be clean and done with this before he’s old enough to know anything about it.”
Wilson also can’t say enough good things about Athey, who has continued to visit and keeps in touch with regular text messages.
“There’s just something about Dan – he’s down to earth, he remembers being in some crappy places in his own life, and you can tell he cares,” he said. “That gives me hope that I can do what he has done.”
Wilson was the first Chesterfield resident treated under MIH’s Suboxone program. Since July, there have been nine others, most of whom are still in treatment and free of drugs.
“If I get one out of 10 that is doing well and hanging in there, that’s my win,” Athey said. “There could be nine people who are having a terrible time, but I’ll keep showing up and being present for them.
“As a peer, there are all of the things we’ve gone through in our addiction that are terrible and we’re not happy or proud of. Sure, we would go back and change it if we could, but we can’t,” he added. “What’s the next best thing? Let’s take these scars and turn them into something positive.”