What recovery means to a health center in Johnson after the floods
This past November, The Johnson Health Center opened its doors to the community — bringing both primary care and substance use recovery services to Lamoille County.
Nine months later, those same doors went underwater when the Gihon and Lamoille Rivers both overflowed in early July.
The Johnson Health Center is run by Geoff and Caroline Butler, and it’s part of a community-wide network centered around substance use recovery that is now tasked with rebuilding after the flooding.
Geoff is the executive director of the health center.
“We lost everything in here. The waters were just over 3 1/2 feet. It was totally overwhelming. To see all of, you know, all the progress you've made — all the hard work and effort that's been put into this building — submerged in water,” he says.
He’s standing in the shell of the building, where the rooms are bare, half of the drywall is torn out and dehumidifiers hum in the background. He says it's the best the place has looked in days.
He and his wife, Caroline, founded the practice in 2021 to help address the health care desert in the small Lamoille County town of Johnson.
Before starting their practice, Geoff worked at the North Central Vermont Recovery Center. Through his work there, he connected with folks at Jenna's Promise, a local nonprofit organization that aims to support women with substance use disorder.
Soon after, the Butlers decided to move from Montpelier to start their practice in Johnson. Since 2021, they’ve grown from 36 to 280 patients. They provide roughly 100 patients with medications for opioid use disorder, like Suboxone, buprenorphine and naltrexone. The Johnson Health Center was about to be home to the state’s first naloxone vending machine.
While the flooding has destroyed the newly renovated building the Butlers moved into less than a year ago, they say all their patients are able to receive care right now.
They’re using a mixture of telehealth visits and borrowing some office space nearby. Caroline is the nurse practitioner at the health center.
“I think COVID was a really good teacher, you know, teaching us all to be adaptable, so that this sort of turn and pivot ... went pretty smoothly,” Caroline says.
The Butlers say they will rebuild, though they aren’t sure exactly what that will look like.
“I mean honestly walking in now, like, I know we're still in a floodplain, and know that all the options are being weighed, (but) you actually feel like you could rebuild here right now,” says Geoff.
They haven’t begun to tally up the cost of damages yet, but Geoff says that they are eligible for FEMA support. They’ve also raised just over $20,000 through a GoFundMe, which Geoff says will go towards rebuilding their supply of medical equipment.
The health center isn’t the only building that got flooded in the town of Johnson, which has staked a lot on supporting people with substance use disorder and in recovery.
Dawn Tatro is one of the founders of Jenna's Promise, which is also located in Johnson.
“We lost our restaurants, both banks, grocery store, post office, our sewer plant. And, you know, it's just really overwhelming to have that much loss and then try to build it back. And, you know, some people are saying, 'You're not gonna.' They're gonna leave. And that's kind of scary, you know? We have a great town,“ Tatro says.
The health center is the most recent addition to the town’s recovery village model — which is essentially a web of holistic services focused around substance use, addiction and recovery. It started in 2019, when Tatro founded Jenna’s Promise after she lost her daughter to opioid addiction.
The network offers multi-layered support to those in recovery, including housing, an intensive outpatient program, a community center and a health and wellness program. Jenna’s Promise also employs those recovering from addiction in a variety of enterprises around the town.
Like JP’s Promising Goods, a surplus and appliance store that offers a safe, sober work environment. The store is managed by Hailey Wilkinson, who is in recovery herself.
“I've been there and I've experienced it, and I feel like I could be a good support person. As well as, they helped me — I've never been a manager before. So I think it gives me a place to grow. And then I can help these women grow,” Hailey says.
Luckily, JP’s was spared from the flooding.
“I couldn’t imagine if this place had to close down. And then what?” she says.
The warehouse of JP’s Promising Goods is currently acting as a donation center.
As the flood recovery continues, town officials in Johnson and the state are worried about the impact this natural disaster may have on those in recovery.
Research shows that natural disasters can exacerbate substance use. Kelly Dougherty is with the Vermont Health Department.
“Obviously, people are very stressed after a natural disaster, and so they may turn to substances to cope. So, you know, that in and of itself can increase the risk of overdose," Dougherty says.
To help combat these concerns, the state has been running multi-agency resource centers where people in recovery can access additional support.
“We have gotten what we call leave behind kits, which contain Narcan or naloxone, which is the opioid overdose reversal drug, as well as other resources — fentanyl test strips, information on how to access treatment and other things in those packs at the multi-agency resource centers. And then we also have just put out just the naloxone itself," Dougherty says.
Dougherty says that in the immediate aftermath of the flood, emergency departments at hospitals were able to provide medications like methadone to people who couldn’t reach their providers.
If recovery organizations need help replacing medications and supplies, she says they can reach out to the Vermont Health Department.
Back in Johnson, Caroline Butler says that they have been able to connect with all of their patients post-flood to let them know that there will be no interruption to their care.
“I'm feeling like we're going to grow and evolve, and sort of, you know, come up with our next phases of this. ... Today, I feel really hopeful. This is an incredible community, people have come out to support. And, you know, it's — we're all in it together," Caroline Butler says.
You can visit VTHelplink.org to find support and assistance for alcohol and drug treatment services.
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