Monday, January 22, 2018
Health

Controversial Operation PAR clinic for recovering drug addicts opens in Spring Hill

SPRING HILL — For Brian Donnelly, it's time to try again.

The 30-year-old Spring Hill man has battled an opiate addiction for a decade. The former honor student's urge to get high killed his ability to hold a job and extinguished his passion for acting. He has overdosed three times.

Donnelly has tried in the past to get clean with the help of a walk-in methadone clinic in Port Richey, but the long distance added another obstacle to an already difficult process. Then he heard that Operation PAR was about to open another clinic, this one in Spring Hill.

"It was a sign of hope," Donnelly said. "I don't want to wake up at 45 and still be dependent on my parents, addicted and wondering how I'm not going to be sick today."

Clients and staffers say the clinic that opened Monday at 1245 Kass Circle will save lives by giving addicts a place to wean themselves off pain pills or heroin without suffering painful withdrawal symptoms. But it came a lot later than planned and, for a while, looked like it might not happen at all.

Operation PAR sued Hernando County last year after the County Commission reversed the county Planning and Zoning Commission's 2011 decision to grant a permit for the clinic. The company already had purchased the former day care center building on a 1-acre lot for $335,000.

Opponents cited safety concerns over recovering drug addicts coming to the clinic. Others worried that their commercial plazas along and near Spring Hill Drive would lose tenants.

Operation PAR dropped its suit last October after the two sides entered mediation. As part of the agreement, Operation PAR added to the site and erected a 6-foot opaque fence on the north, south and west property lines.

Most clients fall into two categories. Some became addicted after they were prescribed painkillers. Others started to use because it felt good, helped them escape turmoil in their lives, or both.

Counselor Len Competello said the location of a clinic can make the difference for someone who is thinking about getting help.

"They're trying to get their lives on track, trying to find a job, so having a location that's not a financial burden allows them more financial independence," Competello said.

Fawn Costelloe, 32, said she did a good job of hiding her addiction to pills until she got pregnant with her son. She was referred to the Port Richey clinic and made the long, expensive drive from Spring Hill. Now the mother of two can stop at the new clinic on her way home from her daughter's preschool — and, eventually, stop going altogether.

On Tuesday, Costelloe pushed her daughter's stroller into the clinic, checked in at the front desk and talked for a few minutes with her counselor. Then she walked around a corner to a window, where a nurse gave her a small cup of liquid methadone and some juice to wash it down.

"I just hope people see this as a good thing," she said. "It's not like there are a bunch of strung-out junkies hanging around."

The clinic saw about 130 clients Monday. All of them were already on the rolls at the Port Richey clinic and asked to be transferred to Spring Hill, said program director Dana Selfridge.

A few more, like Donnelly, walked through the doors wanting to sign up. Patients receive a physical examination, a laboratory workup and an in-depth assessment of their family support and employment status to create a treatment plan that includes regular counseling.

Eventually, the clinic could have a client list of as many as 400, but that would require adding to the staff of 15, Selfridge said.

Marvin Coleman, the company's vice president of community and business relations, said he expects skeptical minds eventually will be put at ease. The standalone building is tucked behind a shopping center, with plenty of its own parking. It's a much better site than some other commercial property available at the time, Coleman said.

"There were ways to do this cheaper, but that's not always best for the clients and the community," he said. "We want people to see us as a benefit, not a liability."

The private nonprofit company, which got its start in Pinellas County, agreed to install extra lighting and the 6-foot-tall fencing. The clinic closes by early afternoon, and clients are asked to avoid loitering in the parking lot. There is no security guard at the clinic. Coleman said his company hasn't seen a need for one in Port Richey.

As clients came and went Tuesday, Joanne Richardson pushed her young grandson's stroller along nearby Pinehurst Drive. Richardson, who lives a few blocks away, didn't know about the clinic until a Times reporter asked her about it. The news didn't worry her.

"I believe if people want to go there, they want to get help," she said. "To do good, not bad."

That's Brian Donnelly's plan. He wants to get back to work, and get back to acting.

"I still have that in me," he said. "It's just camouflaged by 10 years of addiction."

Times photojournalist Will Vragovic contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.

   
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