Beeper Beginnings

Back in 1988 (or maybe it was 1987), Smokey “The Cab Driver” Orcutt handed me a beeper, also known as a pager.  Some of you might remember beepers.

I was brand spanking new in recovery and Smokey ran the alcohol and drug program at Rockville General Hospital in Connecticut. He was a powerful influence in the recovery community. He served as my first sponsor.  His version of coaching recovery was interesting and memorable. He believed strongly in letting people figure it out for themselves.

The tactic he used on me was to recruit me to volunteer at Rockville General Hospital. After I went through the badging process, he handed me a beeper. His intense training regimen consisted of giving me one instruction, just one.

“When the beeper goes off, call the number on it.”

That was it. I had heard from some of the other volunteers about their Emergency Room work (it was known as a room back then, not a department) to introduce others to AA.  But I didn’t put the two together – the beeper and being on call. I’m not too bright.

Sure enough, the beeper beeps at 2:00 am.  I groggily tried to figure out what the noise was. I saw the light on my nightstand.  I stumbled to our touch-tone phone, and called the number. A woman answers.

“Rockville General Hospital Emergency Room, how can I help you?”

“Um, My name is Phil. Um, the beeper just went off.”

“Oh great. We have a live one here. Think you could come down and talk with him?”

“What? Now? Um… okay.”

I drove a short way to the Emergency Room where a nurse directed me to an intoxicated man. He was slightly irritated, slightly belligerent.  Unsure and anxious, somehow I managed to calm him down. That’s what I was there for.

Looking back, I’m also not sure where Smokey got the idea. It might have been his; but there was a guy in Manchester who was doing it too. There was also a guy, last name Bailey I believe, who may have been doing it even earlier in Yale New Haven hospital. There were probably others that I am not aware of.

The emergency room volunteers amazed me. They had many more years of recovery than I and were clearly very skilled and comfortable working with people under the influence. They were gifted. The hospital staff loved them. They eased the workload and de-escalated potentially volatile situations. Smokey had a knack to find these people. He obviously saw something in me that I did not see in myself.  I served as a volunteer with Rockville General Hospital for a couple more years. I helped out in the program, but didn’t ask for the beeper too often. Some part of me knew I wasn’t as skilled and equipped as others. I only had a couple of tools in my belt – some limited knowledge of 28-day treatment programs and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Plus, being new in recovery and not as seasoned as the other volunteers, I found serving in the emergency room frightening and intimidating.

Yet, it was also clear that by serving in this particular capacity, the volunteer’s personal recovery solidified.  I wanted to be as confident as them. I wanted to be of service like them. All those volunteer coaches I personally knew then are either still living in recovery or died sober.  They are testament to the power of service, especially to sustain recovery.

The program was incredibly effective. Decades later, many people attribute their recovery to a visit from these volunteers. However, the Rockville General Hospital program was gradually phased out once Smokey retired and new administrators came along who were unwilling to manage the risk. The program had a permanent impact on me.

I have not forgotten.

I started with CCAR in January 1999 and for nearly 18 years I persistently told the story about Smokey and his Rockville General Hospital emergency room volunteers.   A couple of years ago, I told the story again at the Connecticut Alcohol and Drug Policy Council meeting. People of influence heard and to their credit took a risk and asked CCAR to implement an Emergency Department Recovery Coaching (EDRC) program.  We started in 3 hospitals and less than 2 years later we have signed Memorandums Of Understanding (MOU) with 14 Emergency Departments.  CCAR has a team of incredibly dedicated, inspirational, and skilled Recovery Coach Professionals leading this healing movement. Bill White helped us write a piece about the EDRC program that he posted here.

In the first 18 months, CCAR coaches fielded 1,845 calls generated by 1,573 individuals. That’s a lot of people.  93% of the time, the coaches are able to connect people to ongoing care for their addiction.  Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) has been so inspired and motivated by the CCAR EDRC program that he introduced recovery coach provisions in a federal opioid bill.

I’ve learned a lot as the EDRC program evolves.

  1. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.
  2. Give back what we have been so freely given. Lives are redeemed when we do.
  3. If you trust your coaches and equip them with appropriate tools, they become a legendary healing force.
  4. Perseverance pays off. 18 years telling the same story now bears additional fruit.
  5. It is my profound joy to support and lift others to do the work they were created and gifted to complete.

I encourage our recovery coaches, in all times and in all places, to…  Continue.

Phil Valentine
Phil Valentine

In 2015, I finished a thruhike of the entire Appalachian Trail, a trek of 2,189.2 miles. It took 189 days and 6 pairs of boots. During all that time alone with my Creator, my purpose in life became more precisely defined. I am, simply, to coach recovery. Recovery saved me from an early demise and brought purpose to my tattered life. I have learned that I’m a coach to my very core. I am blessed to put the two together. I started work at the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR) in 1999. I became the Executive Director of this recovery community organization in 2004. I have trained the CCAR Recovery Coach Academy© dozens of times and have a hand in modifying, improving and adapting various recovery coach curricula. I’m old enough now to start considering my legacy. This is a way for me to share things I have learned in my recovery, in my role as Executive Director and a trainer. I find that when I speak I present the same messages over and over. It’s time to write them down.

Phil “Right Click” Valentine
Recovery established 12.28.87

8 thoughts on “Beeper Beginnings”

  1. I remember and knew Walter Bailey who volunteered in New Haven when I was trying to get some traction in Recovery!

  2. Again, I really enjoy reading your blog Phil. Will I be able to meet you in person at the Peer Conference in Troy this week?

  3. As one of the first clients to benefit from this program I am so happy you persisted for 18 years Phil. Since March 17, 2017 my life has changed as a direct result of the EDRC program. Not only did my recovery enable
    me to realize my life long dream of visiting Alaska with my wife and daughter last year, it has also paved the way for me to pass along this amazing gift through my involvement in AA working with many who are new in recovery.
    To you, for having the determination to continue what Smokey had passed along to you, To Jay and David for personally assisting me in getting into recovery, I thank you all daily for the fabulous gift I have received and look forward to passing it on every chance I get. You do definitely support and lift others to do the work they were created and gifted to complete. Keep it up Phil. There are so many of us that are more grateful than you will ever know.

  4. As an EMT on Vernon Ambulance in the late 70s and early 80s I can clearly remember Smokey coming into the ER at RGH. Although I was not in recovery myself yet, I was struck by the compassion and respect that he showed the agitated and sometimes combative intoxicated patients. Unlike many others of the day, he talked to them like human beings, not like a nuisance to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible. His approach resonated with me and through many years of working EMS I found myself drawn to working with substance abusing patients. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was acting as a recovery coach in the back of every ambulance I worked in. Who knew that more than 40 years later and a walk along my own recovery path I would be doing this work in a different setting and still channeling Smokey’s energy?

  5. Humble beginnings and a vision for a better, brighter future. I see the results of CCAR coaches excellent work on a near daily basis and am humbled and awestruck that such a simple concept, beautifully championed has transformed so many. Myself included.
    Thanks for all that you are and do and mean to the recovery community.

  6. I worked out of our local ED for close to a decade. My awe in watching the professionalism of the staff was sometimes stymied by those with limited insight. Quickly I learned how to stay in my lane (and behind the nursing station) watching the waltz awaiting my call to action. Sometimes my jaw dropped to find a patient discharged in spite of asking for help or clearly in need, not thought of as “ill enough” for treatment by the staff on shift.

    I chime in to ask one and all- Be Bold! Speak up. Always be respectful and acknowledg the rank and education of the staff, but look seek out “Learning Opportunities”. Create the discussion. Don’t let the chance to learn be swept away by a fear that your voice won’t be heard.

    Be you paid or volunteer, the coffee room is a wonderful place to share your thoughts and feelings with nursing staff and doctors on the team. Although the disease of alcohol dependency is recognized, and advances with medication assisted treatment is becoming mainstream, it’s still not universally acknowledged And plenty of “travel nurses quote, part time doctors, and PCPs to take a shift “every now and then“ are grateful for the conversation and the information they glean from it . Staff truly appreciate talking about new protocols, treatments, facilities and capabilities. Just because it was discussed at the last conference doesn’t mean that everybody has been brought up to speed.

    The efforts of the ED staff are focused on the physical injuries, and often substance abuse and mental health issues take second fiddle in the orchestra of the trauma center.

    If you find yourself working in the ED you are now part of that orchestra. Find your place, your “lane” and grow comfortable, but know your efforts are appreciated, and might even get cracked smile of approval as they run by in soiled scrubs.

  7. Smokey and Ray Champy paved the way for us. It is so gratifying for their legacy to live on through Recovery Coaches in the EDs. The Recovery Coaches are clearly some great people sharing their experience and providing the guidance so helpful for people in early recovery.
    Now we need to get Recovery Coaches in the schools!
    As always- Thank You for all you do for Recovery!

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