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Recovering addicts tell lawmakers Westmoreland court rehab program works

Paul Peirce
| Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Recovering drug addict and mother of three, Helena Uncapher of Hempfield Township, gives testimony at Westmoreland County Community College on Aug. 3, 2016, during a bipartisan hearing held by members of the state Legislature to combat the opioid crisis.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Recovering drug addict and mother of three, Helena Uncapher of Hempfield Township, gives testimony at Westmoreland County Community College on Aug. 3, 2016, during a bipartisan hearing held by members of the state Legislature to combat the opioid crisis.
Rep. Eric Nelson, (R) 57th Legislative District, asks a question during at Westmoreland County Community College on Aug. 3, 2016, during a bipartisan hearing held by members of the state Legislature to combat the opioid crisis.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Rep. Eric Nelson, (R) 57th Legislative District, asks a question during at Westmoreland County Community College on Aug. 3, 2016, during a bipartisan hearing held by members of the state Legislature to combat the opioid crisis.
A bipartisan hearing held by members of the state Legislature to combat the opioid crisis held at Westmoreland County Community College on Aug. 3, 2016.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
A bipartisan hearing held by members of the state Legislature to combat the opioid crisis held at Westmoreland County Community College on Aug. 3, 2016.

Jeffrey Patterson broke a smile and said he didn't expect a standing ovation from 18 members of a state legislative panel who listened Wednesday to his emotional testimony about his drug addiction.

He said it made him feel good about himself, something he rarely experienced when he was using drugs.

“That was really very nice. I just hope I may have helped to keep our county's drug treatment court, because I know it's helped me,” said Patterson, 57, of Greensburg.

Patterson testified as part of a joint Democratic and Republican state House Policy Committee studying the state's opioid crisis during a public hearing at Westmoreland County Community College in Youngwood.

Just eight months ago, Patterson was more interested in finding his next fix of crack cocaine than rehabilitating his life and his relationship with his daughter, he told the lawmakers.

When he appeared last year in Common Pleas Court, he was offered a choice: serve up to two years in jail or enter a drug court treatment program the county launched in September.

Patterson chose the program and has been clean for eight months, he said.

He has never felt better about himself, he said, and the gesture by the legislators was another step in his ongoing recovery and learning a sense of self-worth.

“The realization in this program that (county) probation cares about my welfare ... working in constant unison with my counselors and case management was an integral part of me believing in myself. Moreover, it has given me the strength to ask others for help to feel better about myself,” Patterson said.

The drug court facilitators, Common Pleas Court judges Megan Bilik DeFazio and Christopher Feliciani, were accompanied by another long-time drug abuser in the program, Helena Uncapher, 31, a Hempfield mother of three.

On March 25, Uncapher was in a car that police stopped because a headlight was out, she told the committee. Officers found 59 morphine pills and 22 grams of marijuana in her purse. Faced with a long jail sentence and losing her children, she quickly opted for drug court in a last-ditch effort to keep her family together.

“First, the judges are more compassionate than I could have imagined. They weed through the hard times and excuses that sometimes follow and try to show leniency when necessary, but will also show disciplinary actions when needed,” Uncapher said. “There must be consequences for our wrongdoings to show us right from wrong.”

Uncapher said she has been clean for 110 consecutive days.

“Through this process, I realized how I am powerless over all drugs and alcohol no matter how they can be justified in my mind,” said Uncapher, whose newfound confidence led to a new job.

Uncapher said she was humbled by the standing ovation.

“That was pretty awesome ... thinking where I was a few months ago,” she said. “I hope my testimony helps the program get funding to continue, and I hope to speak at other gatherings in the future to tell people what I've gone through.”

Feliciani told the panel the county had to scrape together the $300,000 funding for the program, which is limited to 50 participants, including a $100,000 anonymous donation.

“I am here to tell you that with perseverance, hard work and commitment for all involved, the program works,” he said. “We are seeing an incredible success with our participants, many of whom have, for the first times in their lives, been able to remain drug-free for a period of eight to 10 months.”

Bilik-DeFazio said there are relapses, which are anticipated. After the third relapse, participants are ordered to jail.

“When you're clean for five or six months, you don't want to go back into jail,” the judge said.

Tom Plaitano, founder of Westmoreland-based MedTech Healthcare Group, which treats opioid addicts, urged the legislators to find money to continue the drug court and similar programs in the state “instead of burning money on incarceration.”

“We need money. We can't do things we really need to do without money,” Plaitano said.

State Rep. Eric Nelson, a Republican from Hempfield, persuaded the joint policy committees to make one of its eight stops in Westmoreland so members could hear about a success story — the drug court.

“I've observed it and was really impressed,” Nelson said.

The legislators will crisscross the state through September to explore how the opioid crisis impacts communities, then make recommendations to battle the epidemic when the legislature reconvenes in the fall for a special session.

Westmoreland is on pace to surpass its fatal overdose record of 126 last year by 22 percent.

With 57 overdose deaths confirmed through June 30 by Coroner Ken Bacha and another 20 awaiting confirmation, the county is projected to have 154 overdose deaths this year.

Nelson is hopeful that the testimony will help legislators better direct funding to viable programs with success stories and benefit Westmoreland in the process.

“This issue is nonpartisan and impacts people in all walks of life,” Nelson said.

Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850- 2860 or ppeirce@tribweb.com

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