Wellbridge CEO Andrew Drazan explained his determination to build an addiction research and treatment center. Photo: Denise Civiletti

“Over 50 years ago, a beautiful, divorced mother of three young sons lived in Rockville Centre Long Island,” began Andrew Drazan, CEO of Wellbridge, an 80-bed addiction research and treatment center that broke ground today in Calverton.

“Over a short period of time, that mother became immersed in depression and masked her pain with vodka. Doctors that she visited at the time, in the 60s, prescribed the antidote for that illness and it was amphetamines and barbiturates,” he said, standing before the audience inside a crowded tent on one of the runways at the Calverton Enterprise Park, where the new center is being built.

“After several years of this therapy of highs and lows mixed with much alcohol,” Drazan said, his voice choking, “that lady died by overdose at the age of 35, leaving behind three sons: a six-year-old, a nine-year-old and an 11-year-old,” he said.

“I was that 11-year-old boy — and that was my mother.”

Site plan of the 40-acre Wellbridge Campus slated for completion in late 2019.

Drazan’s experience was the impetus, he said, for his pursuit of a state-of-the-art addiction treatment and research center. It was a seven-year odyssey of overcoming multiple obstacles to reach the goal line for Drazan and the developer Engel-Burman Group, which partnered with Northwell Health on the project.

The result is the first “learning laboratory” for addiction treatment launched by a major academic health system in the country, said Dr. Jonathan Morgenstern, Northwell’s director of the Center for Addiction Services and Personalized Interventions Research.

“By integrating research with clinical care, we will create a learning laboratory that will accelerate the discovery of new and effective treatments for addiction,” Morgenstern said.

“Learning laboratories are not something new. There are learning laboratories in every major academic medical center for the treatment of heart disease and cancer and those learning laboratories have helped revolutionize treatment” of those diseases, he said.

“We’re at a moment in time with discoveries in science and technology that our application of those discoveries can really transform the way we deliver addiction care,” Morgenstern told the crowd. “We hope — and we are confident — that in the next decade, our program will serve as a model for the way addiction care should be delivered and the way we work towards a cure eventually for addiction, in the same way we work toward a cure for cancer and heart disease.”

“After struggling for more than 30 years of being in and out of recovery, I finally understand sobriety doesn’t mean not drinking or drugging. Sobriety is a lifestyle,” Douglas Albert said. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Douglas Albert, 60, of Lindenhurst is a living example of the need for the kind of understanding through research Morgenstern addressed. Albert spoke to the audience in heartfelt terms of his lifelong battle with the disease of addiction. He started drinking at age 13, he said.

“I felt like Superman. I lost all my fears and anxieties,” he said. “Years later I found out everything alcohol gave me… it was going to take it all away. Eventually it wanted to get paid back — and I paid dearly,” Albert said.

He described a lifetime up-and-down journey of fighting the demons of substance abuse, of years of abstinence followed by periods of relapse — and of a disease progression that rendered him powerless to fight on his own. He became addicted to opioids when he started using prescription pain medication following a construction accident.

Northwell Health president and CEO Michael Dowling said the health system is proud to take a leading role in addiction research and treatment with the launch of the country’s first academic health system learning laboratory in the field. Photo: Denise Civiletti

“I started to abuse these pills,” Albert said. “Three pills became nine. Nine became 12. Next thing you know, my 30-day prescription lasted me just five days. So I gotta go out and buy them on the street. And I spent a fortune on them — all my money went to that addiction.”

He went into rehab again to detox from the opioids. But he ignored the counselors’ urging to connect with a long-term program, thinking he could do it on his own.

Albert said he soon felt the urge for opioids but resisted. Instead, he turned again to alcohol. He took one drink and “in a very short period of time I was a full-blown alcoholic, drinking a quart-and-a-half of alcohol a day,” he said.

“From 2011 to 2016 I had nine rehabs, five arrests, three times in jail, three stints in a psych ward,” Albert recalled. He’d stop for six months, nine months even 10 months at a time.

“I was able to stop but I couldn’t stay stopped,” he said. That is testament to the power and progression of the disease. “The first time I got sober, it was easy. Now fast forward and I just couldn’t get sober again.”

After his last arrest, he went into a long-term rehab facility — escaping four years in an upstate prison — and then entered an outpatient facility run by South Oaks Hospital.

“They taught me the importance of accountability,” Albert said. “After struggling for more than 30 years of being in and out of recovery, I finally understand sobriety doesn’t mean not drinking or drugging. Sobriety is a lifestyle. It’s a way to live and enjoy your life with change, help, accountability and structure.

“Left to my own devices, I will end up using again,” he said simply.

Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith, a retired registered nurse, said addiction is a public health issue and community support is essential to solving all public health problems.

“Understanding addiction is the key to preventing it,” Jens-Smith said. “In Riverhead we are proud to say that important research will be done here in our town. There is so much we don’t understand about addiction and there will be so many lessons learned right here,” she said.

“This groundbreaking says a good deal about a lot of people — their hard work, empathy, and determination to do what is right for those who are suffering,” the supervisor said.

“This says Riverhead cares.”

The $95 million facility being built on a 40-acre campus on Jan Way in the enterprise park, is slated to be completed in late 2019.

 

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.