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Gateway Rehab's Dr. Neil Capretto remembered as pioneer in addiction treatment

Megan Guza
| Wednesday, June 13, 2018, 12:15 a.m.
Dr. Neil Capretto, Gateway Rehabilitation Center medical director, speaks about drug addiction during the Overdose Task Force educational session in Hempfield on Oct. 1, 2013.
Dr. Neil Capretto, Gateway Rehabilitation Center medical director, speaks about drug addiction during the Overdose Task Force educational session in Hempfield on Oct. 1, 2013.

Days after Gateway Rehabilitation medical director and addiction treatment giant Dr. Neil Capretto died from a rare form of cancer, others in the addiction treatment community struggled with how to move forward with their mission.

“He was a pioneer not just for what Gateway does and how they approach people with substance abuse disorder, but for the entire sector of drug and alcohol treatment in this area,” said Aaron Arnold, executive director of Prevention Point Pittsburgh, a harm reduction and needle exchange program.

“He was positive and optimistic — those are rare qualities among those in traditional drug and alcohol treatment settings,” Arnold said. “They have a set treatment plan, they think they know what's best, and they often don't listen. Neil didn't have that judgmental sense about him.”

Capretto, 62, died Saturday following his second battle with small cell carcinoma of the gallbladder, a rare and aggressive form of cancer with a high rate of malignancy.

“It was just natural born in him to care about others,” said Laura Propst, founder of Not One More Pittsburgh, a group that advocates on behalf of opioid addicts. “I think he had a calling.”

Propst said she visited Capretto, a friend and colleague, in the hospital last week to say what she knew was goodbye.

“He asked me how my daughter was,” she said. “He could barely talk, you had to lean in to hear him, he was in pain, and he was still asking me is my daughter doing OK.”

Many said his kindness and selflessness made him a standout in the early days of the opioid epidemic, during which many wrote off those suffering from addiction as “just junkies.”

“That's what people really responded to with him — he really respected the individual, and his patience was incredible,” said Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department. “He brought that to the table when we all got together to talk policy. He was really helpful about reminding people about the personal aspects, not just the policy.”

Part of that, Arnold said, was using his high-profile position to soften opinions about harm reduction strategies, like needle exchanges and naloxone handouts.

“It's rare for us as a harm reduction program to find allies who believe in what we do and how we do it,” he said. “In meetings, somebody might make a negative comment about what we we're doing or devalue our work in some way. Neil would say, ‘If you're not for harm reduction, then you must be for harm escalation.' ”

Despite his position and expertise, Propst said, he was never heavy-handed.

“Neil was so soft-spoken,” she said. “He didn't have to be loud or have fancy words or say anything a certain way. He could just talk with his soft voice, with his kind words and his knowledge, and he was able to educate and get through to people more that way than trying to be forceful about it.

“He was kind and gentle,” she said. “I just hope we can find some way to keep going.”

Gateway Rehab officials said in a statement that Capretto was a man of “immense knowledge but great humility.”

The statement continued: “We will do our best to carry on the legacy of care, compassion and commitment he showed to everyone he encountered.”

Hacker said she believes that as the opioid epidemic has evolved, so has the thinking surrounding it. She said Capretto's care and kindness are now the norm rather than the exception.

“I hope that we're at a different place and that his work will find sustainability in the work of others now,” Hacker said. “He was not alone.”

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519, or via Twitter @meganguzaTrib.

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