Inspire: Cathy Palm: Treating addiction for 30 years

At Tully Hill Chemical Dependency Treatment Center, an 8-year-old shih-tzu named Coco holds a place of honor. Walking and feeding the fluffy pup is a coveted chore for residents of the drug treatment facility, and in her travels throughout the building, patients often stop to fawn over and pet her.

Coco provides a little bit of unorthodox therapy for those who’ve come to Tully Hill, the private ,nonprofit rehabilitation facility hidden away in southern Onondaga County, for treatment of alcohol and drug addiction. She belongs to the center’s executive director, Cathy Palm, who has been with Tully Hill since its inception in 1988.

“I have the best job in the universe,” Cathy said. “I love what we do because I know we’re making a difference.”

Cathy was asked to join the board at Tully Hill before the facility was even built. Her own life having been touched by addiction, she served on the board of the Council on Alcoholism (now Prevention Network) with Francis Petro, then the president of Crucible Steel. Petro was among several approached by real estate attorney James “Zeke” Spaulding to develop an alcohol treatment facility in Onondaga County. Spaulding was a co-conspirator in a kickback and bribery scheme directed by former Syracuse Mayor Lee Alexander and spent nearly a year and a half in a federal prison; he blamed his behavior on alcohol abuse and said he wanted to atone for his misdeeds by building a rehab facility.

Ultimately, Spaulding put together all of the players to build and run the facility, as well as the property on which it would be built. Among those players was Petro, who asked Cathy to join the board because of her experience as a certified public accountant. She agreed, and Tully Hill opened with 56 beds in 1990.

With changes to the insurance industry, Tully Hill faced a number of challenges in its early years.

“Managed care hit the East Coast in the 1990s,” Cathy recalled. “By the mid-‘90s, we were really struggling with insurance companies being willing to pay for treatment and denying treatment.”

Cathy was still involved with the board, and she’d just left a job with a family-owned manufacturing company. She was asked to take over leadership at Tully Hill.

“I said, ‘You know what? Maybe it’s the perfect job for me,’” she said. “I have the business background, and really, being touched by addiction, know that treatment can benefit the person dealing with it and the families.”

At the time, Cathy refused to sign a long-term contract, agreeing only to stay for two years. That was in 1996.

“Here I am,” she laughed. “We’re making a difference, we’re saving lives, we’re changing lives, we’re changing families and we’re helping the community. And I believe that. That’s why I stay.”

Tully Hill uses the 12-step model followed by such programs as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Families Anonymous and Al-Anon, and encourages participation in those programs. The center offers both intensive outpatient and short-term inpatient treatment. Treatment plans are highly individualized to address circumstantial, educational or age-related needs, and family education is a huge part of Tully Hill’s operation. More than 17,000 patients ages 16 and up have come through its doors for treatment of addiction to alcohol, methamphetamines, cocaine, prescription drugs, hallucinogens and, of course, opioids.

“For us here, about 30 percent of our patients would be addicted to opioids,” Cathy said.

But really, the opioid crisis is just one in a long line of addiction emergencies.

“There’s this drug out there or a category of drugs that’s causing a lot of people [harm], some people die. So it’s serious certainly,” she said. “But it’s just a different drug for now. It’s going to be something else. [This crisis], it’s brought visibility to that drug, but I want to make sure it brings visibility to addiction, because that drug’s going to become expensive or unavailable and it’ll be something else.”

The majority of Tully Hill’s patients are there for alcohol addiction, but the drug of choice varies. What’s important is that addiction can happen to anyone, any age, any socioeconomic background.

“Addiction is the disease,” Cathy said. “It’s progressive, it’s chronic, and it’s nondiscriminatory. It’s going to hurt educated people, ones that are not as educated. It’s going hit working people, nonworking people, rich poor. Doesn’t matter. It’s non-discriminatory.”

That’s why education is such a huge part of Tully Hill’s mission.

“They’re not bad people,” Cathy said. “They’re people that have a disease and what we don’t like is their behavior. We’ll talk to loved ones about you can still love the person and hate their behavior.”

The staff, as well, is dedicated to providing that education. A little under 100 full-time employees, many of whom have been at Tully Hill, share the same commitment to the facility’s mission.

“Our goals here are always to be excellent,” Cathy said. “We always want to be getting better.”

Part of that commitment to excellence is constant professional development. Cathy is on the board of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP); she currently serves on the Strategic Planning Committee.

“That’s been a huge help to Tully Hill,” she said. “I have relationships with executives all over the country. That’s been huge to help me develop as a better leader, to know what others are doing to resolve issues and deal with different drugs or whatever they might be doing.”

Cathy has also made numerous connections in the community—she’s served on the boards of the American Red Cross, Hiawatha Seaway Council Boy Scouts of America (“The Boy Scouts… really teach young people leadership,” she said), the United Way, and the Syracuse Opera, among others—and earned numerous honors for her work, including the NAATP Commitment to Leadership and Advocacy award, M&T Bank’s Nonprofit Executive of the Year, MVP Healthcare’s Women in Business honor and the Boy Scouts of America’s Silver Beaver Award.

But she doesn’t do what she does for the accolades. She does it for the results.

“Addiction is a tough disease,” Cathy said. “It’s really about helping them go through that … And it’s a transformation from the time they walk in the door till they walk out. And it’s just all this good medical care and good clinical care to help them be in a different place by the time they walk out the door.”

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