Inside addiction: Nurses addicted to drugs

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – For Lori Rhinebarger, you could say nursing is in her blood. She started out on the switchboard at a hospital when she was just a teenager.

The caring, compassionate mission to save lives was embedded in her genes.

“My heart is in it. I love the patients and I love my co-workers,” she said.

But there’s also something else in her genes. Lori’s dad became addicted to drugs by age 60. At 63, he was dead. Then, her sister died from an overdose in 2014.

Lori almost died as well.

“My addiction took me places that I never in a million years thought I would go,” she said.

Lori started doing drugs while on the job as a nurse. After her father’s death, she dealt with postpartum depression after her son was born. She says that’s what started a downward spiral that would later put a huge dent in her promising career.

She tells the story of the first time she took a few pills to help her get through the day.

“My son was 4 months old and I still had pain medication in my medicine cabinet from when he was born, but I remembered thinking, those gave me a little bit of energy. This will help get me through the morning. I’ve got to keep going.”

Lori isn’t alone. Studies estimate about 10 percent of nurses nationwide have an addiction. Indiana has seen recent high-profile cases of both nurses and doctors getting caught using and abusing drugs at work.

This year, three nurses were arrested who were employed by Ball Memorial Hospital. One of them was accused of stealing Fentanyl from an automated dispensing machine.

About 500 of 130,000 licensed nurses in the Hoosier State are addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Chuck Lindquist is the program director for Indiana State Nurses Assistance Program or ISNAP. When a nurse is caught using drugs or admits to an addiction, they’re referred to ISNAP’s programs.

“This is a very high stress environment. Nurses are expected to do a lot more with less,” Lindquist said.

Right now at ISNAP, there are just over 400 nurses in the monitoring program. There are another 70 going through the intake process.

Lindquist said easy access to drugs is the number one reason nurses become addicted.

“They’ll give medication to the patient and then they’ll take what’s left over,” he said.

Lindquist admits it can be difficult to get help.

“The majority of them, there’s a hammer over their head,” he said.

According to the state’s department of workforce development, nursing is the most in demand profession in Indiana. The pressure to keep a good job means many nurses will do anything to feed their addiction.

“You have to show up to work. Work is your drug dealer,” Lori said.

She said she hid her addiction from everyone. Even her bosses didn’t know she was high at work.

“I didn’t miss a ballgame. I was that mom that was at every ball game. High… had to be,” she said.

After getting caught stealing drugs, going through dozens of jobs, going to jail, and even an overdose, Lori took the steps to change her life in January 2015.

“I remember that feeling, but I knew if I didn’t take that step, I was going to be dead.”

She’s now working as a recovery nurse at Fairbanks and sharing her story, in hopes of inspiring other nurses to get help before it’s too late.

“For any nurses out there that are thinking, no way. You think if I do this, my career is over, my life is over. There is hope,” she said.

You can report yourself, a family member, or a co-worker to ISNAP. For more information, click here.