White Bear Lake Fire Department paramedic Christy O'Neill saw her license suspended two years ago when she admitted to stealing and using the drugs she could access as a first responder. Since then, she's worked to put her life back together, and was rehired by the department this summer.
"The addiction almost ended my life," said O'Neill in an e-mail interview. "The consequences of my addiction behaviors cost me my career and destroyed what normalcy I had in life."
O'Neill saw her career derailed by addiction less than two years after she started work at the department.According to the Emergency Medical Services Regulatory Board, O'Neill admitted to stealing an intravenous set-up and a vial of Benadryl from the White Bear Lake Fire Department in November 2006. She also admitted to stealing more than 20 vials of morphine and 16 vials of Fentanyl when she worked for Allina Hospitals and Clinics the following year.
"The problem was that I was too sick to realize I had a problem, and I had to hit rock bottom before I could accept that I needed help," she said. Friends tried to steer her in the right direction, but O'Neill wouldn't turn her life around until she called a chemical health specialist and confessed to authorities.
"It was not an easy road, but I soon enough was able to admit that I was powerless over my addiction and my life had become unmanageable," she said. "There is hope and help out there for all addicts, but unfortunately it is often hard to accept that you need it. Addicts have to accept they have a problem and ask for help, no one can force them to get help."
White Bear Fire Chief Tim Vadnais said O'Neill has gone through a lot the last two years and deserves a second chance with the department. O'Neill has completed a treatment program, volunteered for probationary office work and joined other paramedics on voluntary ambulance ride-alongs.
All of her work was intended to win back trust and repay debts to the department.
"She has worked hard to get to where she is now," said Vadnais. "She's totally turned her life around."
O'Neill has been drug free for three years, he said, she speaks to other addicts and has the support of her counselors.
"When she worked for us she was an excellent paramedic, and I have no doubt she will be an excellent paramedic for us now." he said.
The department conducts random urine analysis, has redundant inventory controls and audit trails for all its drugs used to treat patients, added Vadnais.
As a secondary paramedic, she will always be under the supervision of a primary paramedic.
White Bear Lake City Manager Mark Sather said he supported the decision to rehire O'Neill. The department employs 20 paramedics.
"This is a person we've chosen to give a second chance. She's paid her debt to society," he said. "She made a mistake three years ago and has recovered and is becoming a valuable asset in our community again."
O'Neill lives in the Mahtomedi area with her young son and said her days are now filled with family, friends and speaking with support groups. She said she has been changed by addiction and believes she will be a better paramedic.
"I have grown so much as a person, discovering more about myself and better ways to deal with life's stress," she said. "As a paramedic, I now have increased empathy for those who suffer from addiction, depression and other illness that society shuns."
"There is treatment and hope for everyone," she said. "I was very fortunate to grasp recovery and use it better myself and help others."
While some have questioned her return to the department, O'Neill said she does not worry about a relapse.
"I have embraced recovery and only time will tell that to those who doubt me," she said. "But for now, I have a large majority of public safety personnel, who are behind my return and support me on this new chapter in life."
Republished with permission of The St. Croix Valley Press.