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At CareUnit, Troubled Athletes Are Confronted, Not Coddled : Hospital in Orange Treats Sports’ Drug and Alcohol Abusers by Stripping Them of Identity in Emotional Therapy Sessions

Times Staff Writer

You assume that a visit to an expensive drug rehabilitation hospital will mean a long drive to some secluded sanctuary on the far side of town. Mentally, you prepare for white-clad orderlies meeting stretch limousines at the gate.

You expect security to be tighter than the Kremlin’s. You can almost smell the lawn, freshly cut and watered. You can almost see padded rooms. You can’t wait to hear backroom stories of near escapes over barbed-wire fences and patients with the shakes seeing snakes.

Your car nears the CareUnit Hospital of Orange. It’s the place where stars of field and screen go to dry out, sort of the Studio 54 of drug rehabilitation centers.

The names that have been linked with this place run through your mind. The psychiatrist in charge has treated everyone from former First Lady Betty Ford to one of the Gatlin Brothers.

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CareUnit could open a Hall of Fame wing for its patient-athletes. You go over the list again: Vida Blue, Steve Howe, Tim Raines, Maury Wills, Charles White, Hollywood Henderson, Alan Wiggins, Tommy Kramer, Tyrell Biggs.

And those are just some of the ones we know about.

You exit the freeway and are soon surprised to learn that you have passed CareUnit’s address twice. You check the address again and finally see a sign across the street from a shopping plaza.

CareUnit looks more like a YMCA.

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You’re disillusioned.

The entrance, under reconstruction, is a maze of beams, planks and sawdust.

No one asks for your ID at the front desk.

You ask for Dr. Joseph Pursch and someone points to an office down the hall. You walk the corridor and see a cafeteria, some classrooms and a recreation area. You don’t see much hospital stuff--tubes, machines, nurses.

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You meet Dr. Pursch and tell him you’d like to know what goes on here. You wonder out loud about the lack of security.

Dr. Pursch chuckles.

Later, Thomas (Hollywood) Henderson, the former pro football star, cocaine addict and CareUnit graduate, explains.

“The doors are always open,” Henderson said from the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, where he is serving a 22-month sentence for sex offenses he says are related to his cocaine abuse.

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“When I was there, I heard some guys talking about climbing over the back wall. I said ‘Why don’t you just walk out the front door?’

In my stay, there were guys that would walk down to the liquor store, get stoned, and walk back in. There were guys who would drink my after-shave. There were some sick people.”

At $15,000 for a 28-day stay--most insurance companies cover treatment--patients are free to come and go as they please. About 7% have chosen to leave early.

There are no steel bars on the doors, no guards or rubber-padded rooms.

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“No legal commitments, only emotional,” Pursch said.

For many arriving patients, though, CareUnit is the last refuge.

Henderson said his choice was simple: Enter CareUnit or commit suicide.

There are 165 CareUnit facilities nationwide in 33 states. The Comprehensive Care Corporation controls about 25% of the market in drug/alcohol treatment centers.

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There are many other reputable treatment centers, but CareUnit of Orange handles more professional athletes than all the others combined.

It’s mainly due to the reputation of Pursch, a bubbly, silver-haired psychiatrist who came to the facility in 1980 after retiring from the Navy.

Pursch, while chief of alcohol rehabilitation service at the Naval Regional Medical Center in Long Beach, drew national recognition for treating VIPs such as Betty Ford; President Jimmy Carter’s brother, Billy; Senator Herman Talmadge, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin. A reputation was born.

He’s a syndicated columnist and author who caters to celebrities, politicians and sports stars. Pursch revels in the publicity that comes with the job but, more importantly, he considers treating celebrities a special challenge.

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“What makes them different is the way society treats them,” Pursch said.

Nowhere is that more true than in sports.

Pursch says the blame for an athlete’s addiction must be accepted by everyone--media, coaches, management and fans.

“It’s a problem for all of us, created by all of us,” he said.

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In other words, the athlete who enters a CareUnit is different from the plumber.

The athlete with a drug or drinking problem most likely has been coddled all his life, Pursch said. He tends to be a macho- type and a fast-mover with a lot of money and plenty of free time. Drinking is condoned in sports circles. Starring in a beer commercial is considered cool, not problematic.

Pursch said that as long as an athlete is performing on the field, coaches, management, friends and fans are inclined to look the other way.

“We unwittingly allow him to become an alcoholic,” he said. “He gets sicker and sicker, and there are cover-ups like, ‘He’s still the best outfielder we’ve got,’ or, ‘With a wife like his, you’d drink, too.’ ”

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Pursch says that growing public awareness in recent years is encouraging, yet partly born out of selfishness.

For years, he said, we overlooked the alcoholic athlete because it can sometimes take 10 to 20 years for alcohol to affect physical performance. Cocaine, however, can attack in 6 to 24 months.

“We only begin to look at it when the Steve Howes can’t make it to the field, when they miss the bus or are arrested or killed,” Pursch said. “It began to interfere with the game noticeably. It’s like if he drinks, it’s OK. If he takes cocaine, it’s OK. But if he misses the bus, or the star quarterback rolls his car over, then its ‘Well, let’s get the guy treated.’ ”

Pursch said that the temptation to give an athlete special treatment remains even after admittance to the hospital.

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“When they get in here, other patients want to treat them differently,” Pursch said. “A hospital employee might cut corners if he can get an autograph for his kid.”

But stripping the athlete of his identity is the first step to recovery.

What happens in rehabilitation hospitals isn’t magic. There are no 28-day recovery potions. You don’t cure an addiction as you would the measles.

In fact, the most critical part of treatment begins after the patient has left, when he must make lifelong commitments to programs such as Alcoholics and Cocaine Anonymous.

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“CareUnits have their place,” Henderson said, “but all they really do is stop you long enough to tell you what you’re doing is killing you.”

CHECKING IN

Some athletes try to kick the habit cold turkey before entering a rehabilitation center.

A familiar story line: Athlete misses a team plane and isn’t heard from for three days. Agent finally calls team and says player is having personal problems. A few days later, the player secretly checks into CareUnit, shaking from withdrawal symptoms.

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It’s not the most common story, though.

Most enter the hospital in decent physical shape.

Pursch’s job is to immediately assess any damage to brain and body caused by substance abuse before putting the athlete in detoxification, which can last anywhere from three days to a week. Detoxification is administered gradually with medication, so never are realized such horror stories as patients climbing walls or seeing snakes.

Pursch said that the experience is comparable to having a bad case of the flu.

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Pursch then tries to establish normal eating and sleeping habits for the patient.

Next, Pursch contacts the patient’s friends and family. Often he makes a call to the team trainer or doctor. These people, Pursch says, form the core of recovery.

At 92%, airplane pilots have the highest success rate after leaving treatment centers. It isn’t an accident. Because safety in the air is imperative, airlines keep close watch on recovering pilots.

That doesn’t happen often in athletics. Pursch said that success rates for athletes are considerably lower, although exact percentages aren’t available.

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Many times, the problems recur because the athlete is thrown right back into the same environment, Pursch said.

“I talk to wives and parents and establish a rapport with the team trainer,” he said. “I have to get them to understand that (the athlete) will never be able to drink or take drugs again.”

Some, he said, aren’t willing to take the responsibility of after-care.

“Sometimes a coach will say ‘That’s not my job. I’m a manager, not a baby-sitter,’ ” Pursch said.

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Pursch will not discuss individual cases and danced around the subject of former Dodger pitcher Howe, who left CareUnit and has since had relapse after relapse.

But Pursch said he doesn’t consider Howe a CareUnit failure.

“I don’t use the word failure ,” he said. “It’s only a failure in technique. If you have a heart attack and have one again in six months, that’s not failure. It’s just another heart attack. This is a disease.”

THERAPY

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After detoxification, the athlete joins a group of about 8 or 10 other patients for daily therapy sessions.

But first Pursch lays down the ground rules, especially if the athlete is recognizable.

“I tell the other patients not to talk to this man about his game,” Pursch said. “Every time you talk to this guy about being a quarterback, you’re harming him.”

Another mistake, Pursch said, is allowing an athlete too much exercise.

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“That’s where many CareUnits fall through,” Pursch said. “Any jock would love to jog nine hours a day and have all the other patients jog with him. He doesn’t want to sit in groups.

“The average pool shark would rather sit around and shoot billiards all day. Woody Allen would want to do stand-up comedy. Athletes don’t like being in groups where people are talking about feelings or emotions.”

But that’s exactly what they’re asked to do. Therapy sessions take up most of a patient’s time at CareUnit.

Sessions can be tough and emotional. Other patients may purposely try to strip an athlete to his emotional core, often leaving him in tears.

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“The quarterback might be seated next to a 58-year-old compulsive engineer who keeps giving the quarterback crap,” Pursch said.

“The engineer might be saying ‘You have the world by the tail and I’d give my you-know-what to be where you are.’ The quarterback might yell back and then the engineer says ‘Wait a minute, Tom.’ . . . Tom might be his son’s name. And the quarterback might remember that’s just how his father treated him.”

Admittedly, the treatment at CareUnit is superficial.

“It’s not too difficult not to use drugs in here,” Pursch said.

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The real challenge occurs when the athlete is pushed out the door after 28 or 42 days.

CareUnit therapists make a point of staying in touch, but the responsibility of recovery ultimately depends on the athlete and those around him.

“Relapses, to some extent, are out of my control,” Pursch said. “Some teams, they don’t want to hear about the problem again. It’s like ‘Let’s just bury it.’ ”

Three CareUnit stories:

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HOLLYWOOD HENDERSON

Thomas Henderson had one last thing to do before checking into CareUnit on Nov. 6, 1983. He went to a phone and called his dealer.

“I free-based 3 1/2 grams of cocaine before I got there,” Henderson said. “I was toasted. It’s the only way to check in.”

Henderson had been to drug treatment centers before. The former star linebacker with the Dallas Cowboys checked into an Arizona facility in 1981 and stayed 50 days. On his drive back to Texas, Henderson reached into his glove compartment, pulled out a joint and smoked it.

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But in November of 1983, Henderson was desperate. He had just been arrested on sex charges and would later be convicted of one count of forced oral copulation and one count of sexual battery in an incident involving two teen-age girls.

After his arrest and before his trial, Henderson sought help for his cocaine addiction. He was penniless, having spent all his money on drugs, but Pursch took him on as a personal challenge.

And he was a challenge.

“I was arrogant, self-assured and I didn’t need no dumb doctor telling me about drugs and alcohol,” Henderson said.

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But Henderson changed after starting therapy.

“I cried every day,” he said. “You hear about a woman who was hiding a bottle from her husband. You hear about the insanity and you say, ‘Hey, I did that too.’ There’s a wonderful bond that develops. When I heard someone else tell their story, I cried.

“The groups can be vicious. I remember one day we all started yelling at this one lady and she started crying. But at the end of the session, she got up and kissed all of us.”

He outlined a typical day at CareUnit.

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7 a.m.: Breakfast.

8 a.m.: Meditation. All patients are required to read from a motivational book, “One Day at a Time.”

9 a.m: First therapy session.

11 a.m: Lecture on effects of drugs and alcohol.

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Noon: Lunch

1 p.m.: Second therapy session.

4 p.m.: Relaxation.

5 p.m.: Dinner

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6 p.m.: Patients taken to either Cocaine, Narcotics or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in community.

Henderson stayed 42 days at CareUnit and then spent another 60 days at a relapse prevention facility, Starting Point, in Costa Mesa.

He says he has been sober for two years and five months.

When he is released from prison next October, Henderson said, he plans to attend four to five Cocaine Anonymous meetings a week for the rest of his life.

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“It takes total commitment,” he said. “It’s like breathing. It’s a must, if you want to live.”

CHARLES WHITE

He was the Heisman Trophy winner as a tailback at USC in 1980, a seemingly indestructible force on a football field. No one cared much about that when White checked into CareUnit in July of 1982.

There, he was just another cocaine addict, not a superstar.

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“They strip you of all that,” said White, now a reserve running back with the Rams. “You go there for a reason. No one cares about Heisman winners or Super Bowl champions.”

White hadn’t heard of CareUnit before he entered the hospital. While he was with the Cleveland Browns, he was involved in the team’s own drug rehabilitation program, the Inner Circle. But White lived in Los Angeles during the off-season, so decided to check into a facility near home.

White, too, learned a lot about himself.

“When you’re in those groups of only eight or nine people, it’s hard to hide,” he said. “It’s like being in a college class with only eight students. It can get very emotional. You get drained. You say things to people in that room that you never thought you’d say.

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“It’s being stripped down to a level of no identity. It all goes back (as a star athlete) to not being able to share. Most of them didn’t know who I was, which was the good thing about it.”

White would not say how long he has been drug-free.

“I don’t count the days,” he said.

White followed his stay at CareUnit with after-care meetings, but said he no longer attends.

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“You can attend meetings for as long as you are alive,” White said. “You can go once or twice a week. With my situation, I have God in my life.

“It’s up to the person. If he wants to get thrown back in (the drug circle), it’s there. The important thing is to stick to the program, gather yourself new friends and stay away from the old places and old friends.”

TYRELL BIGGS

Biggs was the 1984 Olympic super-heavyweight boxing champion. He turned pro in November of 1984, winning a six-round decision over Mike Evans. Not many knew that Biggs was also fighting a problem with cocaine.

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The money he made after turning pro only made things worse.

“I had all this cash and was hooked on cocaine,” Biggs said.

A potentially lethal combination.

Around Christmas of 1984, Biggs checked into CareUnit.

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“It was something I wanted to do up until I stood outside the place,” he said. “Then, I wanted to bail out. The first two weeks, I just went through the motions. My attitude was that I wasn’t as sick as these people. I didn’t think I really needed to be there.”

It took awhile before Biggs would even involve himself in therapy sessions.

“I just started listening and things started hitting me,” he said. “Emotionally, I was bad off. I opened up and started letting some of the junk out of my system. And it didn’t feel funny at all.

“In there, there is no athlete, no trainer, no press. It’s just getting down to the realities of life. Outside, everyone sees you as a basketball player or a boxer and not a person. That role gets to you.

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“Then, you have a whole lot of money and you start thinking of things to do with it.”

Biggs is one of the CareUnit success stories. In April of 1985, in his first fight after leaving the hospital, Biggs knocked out Mike Perkins in the first round. He has won seven fights since, raising his professional record to 9-0.

On March 23, Biggs won a 10-round decision over Jeff Sims. The victory was remarkable, considering that Sims had broken Biggs’ right collarbone in the second round.

Biggs is hoping soon for a shot at the heavyweight title. And he says he has CareUnit to thank.

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When not in training, Biggs attends as many as six meetings of Cocaine Anonymous a week.

And he’s happy to do it.

Biggs lives in South Laguna and often drops by CareUnit to visit.

“They stay in touch with me,” Biggs said. “But I don’t wait for them to call me, because I feel good about going in there. I can talk to other patients and tell them what I was going through. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me in my life.”

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