Episode 13: Celebrating 75 Years of Fairbanks

December 22nd, 2020

Our host Kathleen Gill, Kathleen is joined by former President and CEO of Fairbanks Helene Cross and former board chairman Rusty McKay to bring to life the journey of Fairbanks over the last 75 years. Read the full transcript from the podcast below or listen to it here or on iTunes. 


Kathleen Gill: Welcome to Recovery Talks, a Fairbanks Podcast where experts from Fairbanks Treatment and Recovery Center, located in Indianapolis, Indiana take time to discuss unique aspects of addiction, substance use disorder and recovery as well as other relevant issues with our guests. I’m your host, Kathleen Gill. I’ve worked at Fairbanks since 2007, and I am a woman in long-term recovery. Today’s presentation is our first virtual podcast, adapting to the realities of 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kathleen Gill: We are joined by  Cross, who was the President and CEO of Fairbanks from the year 2000 until 2012, and Rusty McKay, who joined the Fairbanks board in 1999, served as a former board chairman and is an emeritus board member to this day. Helene and Rusty, thank you so much for being here.

Helene Cross: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Kathleen Gill: It is truly my honor and privilege to bring to life the journey of Fairbanks over the last 75 years. What a rich history we will be sharing with you all today.

Kathleen Gill: So, Fairbanks began with a very humble beginning in a neighborhood home in downtown Indianapolis in 1945. It was called the Indiana Home for Alcoholic Men. Rusty, can you tell us a little bit more about how the Indiana Home for Men got its start?

Rusty McKay: In 1939, a man, an Indianapolis man named Artie Sharin from a very large Catholic family returned from a two-year experience at Fairbanks Clinic, where he was treated for alcoholism. He was remanded there by his family because he couldn’t control his drinking and his finance.

Rusty McKay: When he returned to Indianapolis, he was committed to trying to stay sober, but he didn’t really know exactly how to go about that. He made a contact with a fledgling organization called Alcoholics Anonymous who was headquartered in New York City, and they sent him some material including some information about a big book, or a book that AA calls the Big Book, which has the information that has helped alcoholics since its beginning in 1935.

Rusty McKay: Artie was visited shortly thereafter by a man named Irving Myerson, who was from Cleveland and was a traveling salesman, and had been directed to stop in to see him when he was in Indianapolis because he was what they would call a lone wolf. And he rang his doorbell unannounced and indicated he was there to help him stay sober. He started to work with a number of people that had the same interest as him, and one of the problems they ran into over a period of time was that the men that they were working with who was trying to stop drinking often had some significant illnesses and even suffered death as a result of going cold turkey from drinking. And they were confused by that, and they reached out, and they felt there was a need for some medical detoxification available in Indianapolis. They raised some money from outside sources and arranged for a medical detox in their first location; what is that, 16th and Alabama? And they called it the Indiana Home for Alcoholic Men.

The purpose was to get men through the detox period, and they learned through trial and error and through some help about how to do that. That was the first, original organization of Fairbanks Hospital.

Rusty McKay: The demand for detox outstripped the supply over the years, and eventually, they made the decision that they needed to have medical oversight. Those were the beginnings of Fairbanks.

There’s a picture on the wall in the present in-patient ward somewhere at Fairbanks of the men lined up at the nurses’ station in one of the early facilities, getting their evening shot of whiskey. They didn’t have their drugs to treat the problems with withdrawal, and they knew that they had to taper the men off. So, that was the way that they did it.

Kathleen Gill: So, as you said, my understanding is the Indiana Home for Alcoholic Men, they were exploring expanding to a larger facility… Helene, can you tell us a little bit about the next chapter in the history of Fairbanks?

Helene Cross: About three years after the Indiana Home was established, a program up near St. Paul, Minneapolis area of Minnesota began called Hazelden was started as a detox center for Catholic priests, and over the next 10 or 15 years, it changed from being a detox-only center to adding what they called a treatment program.

Helene Cross: Basically, what they did was take the 12 steps from AA and developed them into a study of what each meant, and how an individual going through this program after detox could begin to change their lives. And they established what became known nationally as The Hazelden 28-Day Program.

Helene Cross: We had nothing like this in Indiana. We had the Indiana Home, which was doing a magnificent job and running out of space, and the leadership there said two things. One is, “What can we do to establish more, to offer treatment in addition to detox?”, and also, “We recognize that women want to come to the Indiana Home, and we don’t have room for women. We don’t have room enough for the men who want to come.”

Helene Cross: And so, they began to establish a fundraising drive to create a center. And I heard this story from Buck Bruner, who was an emeritus board member of Fairbanks who I loved listening to, he said what happened is after they began fundraising, the administrator of the Indiana Home saw a tiny ad in the Indianapolis News, which was the evening paper; significant to the story. And the ad said, he said it was in the sports page, so I guess it was really targeted to the men who were the leaders, and the opportunity was to apply for some funds from the Cornelia Cole Fairbanks Trust.

Kathleen Gill: Ah. Aha. So, now we are hearing the Fairbanks name for the first time.

Helene Cross: Yes, indeed.

Kathleen Gill: Who was this Cornelia Cole Fairbanks?

Helene Cross: Well, she turns out to be an important lady. She was the Vice President of Charles Warren Fairbanks, who was Vice President under Teddy Roosevelt.

Helene Cross: Remember that Teddy was the mighty environmentalist, and Charles Warren Fairbanks took his lead from Teddy and in fact was involved in some land operations of saving some of the wilderness in Alaska, and Fairbanks Alaska is named for this man.

Helene Cross: So, he has a wife, Cornelia, who began to be one of the most popular women in Washington. She became head of the women from the Revolution, the American Revolution women, and other major roles, and was considered by many to be the Vice President, First Lady, and sort of the president for women in the United States. Very, very popular woman. A lot was written about her.

Helene Cross: So, she died, and Charles wanted to honor her, and he gave a gift of $50,000 to the City of Indianapolis and said, “I would like to honor her with this trust fund,” and he asked the city to give the money, the interest, he asked the city to give the interest from the fund to a not-for-profit in 50 years.

Kathleen Gill: So, Indiana Home applied for this grant?

Helene Cross: That’s correct. And the story of the distribution is rather interesting because now it’s been many, many years since Charles died; I think he died in about 1917. He had a son and he was gone, so the grandson, Richard M. Fairbanks, Jr. was present at the distribution.

Helene Cross: So, who was Richard? He’s an important name in our history, isn’t he? So, Richard was at that time the owner of WIBC Radio. He had had the radio for several years. His parents owned both the radio station and the Indianapolis News.

Or gave the news report. And he took that and built a radio and TV empire. And later with his wealth, he established something that all of us in Indiana know about, the Richard M. Fairbanks, Jr. Foundation, which is active and alive and provides so much for this community. He provided a lot for Fairbanks over the next years that you’ll hear more about, and I think significant also is Virginia Fairbanks, his wife, is the person for whom the Newfields Garden is named.

Helene Cross: So, Richard was at the distribution of this money, his grandfather’s funds, and looked at the applications, and there was the Indiana Home. And he said to the group, “At my radio station, I have a general manager who drinks. Some days I don’t know if he’s going to show up; he’s often not there on Mondays. But he’s a good man, and whatever these people are doing is important. I want them to have this money.”

Helene Cross: So, the entire amount was given to the Indiana Home, about $250,000. For the rest of the fundraising, with that, the board was successful, the committee was successful, and then, who shows up next in our history but then-mayor Richard Luger, who offered land on 16th and Northwestern. Said, “You can build there if you want the land,” and so, the Cornelia Cole Fairbanks Home was opened in 1970.

Kathleen Gill: Wow. That is really… there are a lot of people involved in that story, and how the Fairbanks name came to be. And of course, there are so many different organizations this day and age that are connected to that Fairbanks Foundation, and what an honor to represent that man, that family with the name Fairbanks here.

Kathleen Gill: So, they open their next facility at 16th and Northwestern Avenue, and dedicated that facility to Cornelia; I understand that there were quite a lot of firsts that happened with this new Fairbanks treatment center. Rusty, would you be able to share some of the new upcoming happenings that happened there?

Rusty McKay: One of the things that were critical to the growth of Fairbanks was the fact that the American Medical Association, in 1955, declared alcoholism and drug addiction as a medical problem, not a psychological problem or an issue with morality. It was the first step in moving to a clinical operation at Fairbanks and other treatment facilities, and Fairbanks was the first treatment facility in the ’60s to approach and encourage insurance companies to care for this under their medical policies.

Rusty McKay: At that time, we made a major decision that our disease was not gender-specific to men and we admitted women, and had a separate facility… not a separate facility but a separate area within the facility, to treat women. We began to expand the area of clinical operations to deal with other addictions besides alcoholism, primarily drug addiction. We moved from what historically had been a detoxification organization, or primarily focused on detoxification, to a clinical program that included and was modeled after the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and we began to discuss and learn from other people like Hazelden how to treat them.

When I became sober, new facilities like Fairbanks were treating people for a 28-day program for men and for women, and it was covered primarily with medical insurance policies. We were the first… we were one of 25 facilities that were accredited by the joint commission, which is an organization that accredits hospitals, and other organizations that treat specific diseases like alcoholism, and still are part of the joint accreditation today. It’s a very important step in terms of getting coverage for medical issues.

Rusty McKay: We had a full-time position, we had a doctor who did his internship when he was at medical school, Dr. Tim Kelly was his name, and he joined us after his graduation and eventually became the medical director for the hospital for many years, I think 30 or 35, maybe more. And he and Helene are known in this community as the experts in addiction, so when there’s an issue about addiction or the opioid crisis, frequently Tim Kelly is quoted or Helene is quoted.

Kathleen Gill: Thank you, Rusty. So, now the facility is named Fairbanks, we are providing services to women, we are an accredited hospital, and it is my understanding that by the end of the ’70s, Fairbanks is already running out of space at this new location. So, Helene, if you could tell us a little bit more, and how we ended up on the Community North campus.

Helene Cross: Well, it was a real success story. And I think a key was the fact that we were the first in the state to treat women, and women were coming from other states, as well. It was about a 28-day program, waiting list, and the board said, “Look at this. We already are running out of space. What do we do?”, and began again to fundraise.

Helene Cross: They wanted to build a 94-bed facility, and now, the gleam in their eye, the strategy was to include adolescents. Because during this period of the 1970s, a new episode in the life of America began; not only were we finding addiction to alcohol, but we had the beginning, of course, and the revolution of the drug culture. And oftentimes, it was adolescents who were affected and who also needed some help.

Helene Cross: Alan Hicks was president of Community Hospital, and he had made a risky decision that his board agreed to, to purchase a large amount of land on the northeast side of Indianapolis bordered by Shadeland and 82nd Street. And the goal was eventually to build another Community Hospital.

Helene Cross: Now, it was farmland, and certainly not zoned to be a hospital, and he heard that Fairbanks had a need. So, he called the board chair and offered the land for a dollar a year for 20 years. If they moved there and built Fairbanks there, and with that, he could have it zoned to be a healthcare area and eventually build his hospital. AThe offer was great, and the board took the offer and began planning for the new facility to be built up there where it is today.

Kathleen Gill: Wow. That is amazing. So, when did Fairbanks move to its current location, and how did that effects its mission, Helene?

Helene Cross: 1982. And remember now, the mission is focused on treatment, the 28-day program; we had women and now we have adolescents, and life was good. But as the world changes, and in healthcare, it changes more rapidly than one can understand, the 1980s began what was known as the Year of Managed Care, and insurance began to pressure treatment centers all over the country, suggesting that, “We’re providing money for individuals to come for 28 days and then in a year or so, they come again, or maybe less than that.” They weren’t understanding, and often still don’t, that relapse is part of chronic disease, and people might need to come back, but they were adding pressure and said, “We’re not going to pay. We’re not going to pay that long.”

Helene Cross: And some treatment centers resisted and said, “Well, it doesn’t matter. People can pay their own way,” and began to develop models that were self-pay. We were not an organization that was in a location, nor was it the spirit or the mission, to say, “We will only take people who have money to pay,” and began to make some changes, tweak it a little bit, add fewer days, but yet here we were with all these beds, and eventually… the beds weren’t full, we created some of them into outpatient areas but we had no way to charge.

Kathleen Gill: So, that’s in roughly the late ’90s? And Rusty, I believe that is approximately the time that you actually joined the board. How did you and the others begin to solve these massive problems?

Rusty McKay: At the time I joined the board, Bob Martz was President and CEO. We did not have an executive director because the board made the decision that they needed to make the decision about whether they were going to move forward as a standalone organization or connect with an acute care hospital organization. The board made the decision that the risks of associating with someone in a partnership, in either a merger or whatever, that the risks were too high for what we wanted to try to do, which continued to be the brand for recovery for not just people who could afford it. And so, we looked for a CEO who could take us from where we were to where we wanted to go. There were a number of candidates that appeared, and I’m proud to say that Helene Cross answered the bell, and she oversaw the development of Fairbanks Hospital with the staff both clinical and back… other members of the staff.

Rusty McKay: There still remains today a stigma to addiction. It’s less today than it was in the ’90s and in the early 2000s. If there’s been any positive thing as a result of the addiction opioid crisis, is the awareness of the issue of addiction in the general population. We have a reputation of being the Cadillac of recovery inside the community of Indianapolis, for those people that were looking for a treatment facility. But the general population didn’t really understand what we were all about, and one of the first missions that the board under Helene’s direction moved in was to try to improve the brand to explain to the general public, the business community, the legal community, what Fairbanks was all about.

Helene Cross: There’s an old African proverb that I often use: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” And what we did in the beginning, and what we did as long as I was there, is we did what the motto of Fairbanks is now, Together We Can.

Helene Cross: First thing was very fortunate, with a board retreat that the first year, on 9/11/2001, we looked at the environment, we looked at what was going on, we listened to Dr. Kelly, and we changed the mission statement from a focus on treatment to a focus on recovery. And I can tell you that that mission statement was the driver for me and for the rest of the organization for the years that I was there. Every decision was sifted through it like a flour sifter in order to make certain that it was focused on recovery.

Helene Cross: Another is that we had talent. They recruited a few talented people, but we needed more talent. We needed talent in management and we needed talent on the board. Boards are about wisdom, wealth, and work, and we had some incredibly wise and people who worked hard, and we had some wealth, but we needed the work in other areas.

Helene Cross: We also developed a leadership and management team really committed to the mission, and added more staff development, and more staff education. So, had a strategy, as we connected the mission to our plans, the plan was to focus on recovery. And so, the question was: how are we going to do that?

Helene Cross: We applied through United Way for the grant from the Lilly Endowment, and I took the list of a million dollars in capital needs to their office, and the United Way representative said, “This isn’t how Lilly wants us to do it. We will first give you the grant to do a facility assessment and a long-term capital plan.”

Helene Cross: And as with other miracles, in doing that, the one-million-dollar request actually became a plan for 10 million dollars.

Kathleen Gill: Wow.

Helene Cross: A request that included not only the renovation of the building but offering a dream to build a recovery center. So, in my memory of activities that I did while I was there, one that will always, always stay with me is the facilitator who was with us in the boardroom to do the facility assessment, and on the wall was that new mission, to focus on recovery. We had only focused on treatment; we were looking at a treatment center with a really good connection to AA, which is a focus on recovery, but we wanted to focus on recovery in other ways.

Helene Cross: And so, the question was, how? What can we do to focus on recovery?

Helene Cross: And I remember Robin Parsons, who’s there still today, who’s been there probably 40 years, said, “What we need is a coffee shop. We need people in recovery to be able to stop by with their sponsors. We need space for recovery coaches so we can meet with people individually after they leave.”

Helene Cross: The ideas flowed, and the facilitator wrote them down. Rachelle said, “We need a school. Kids relapse so quickly after treatment. What if we had a school?” And all these ideas were written down. So, the ideas were in two boxes: one was the facility assessment that the engineers did that said the facility needs help, and that was a two-and-a-half-million dollar grant, and the second was the facility assessment that says, “We need space to do all these things in order to focus on recovery. How can we do coffee shop alumni programs that you’re responsible for today and other things?”

Helene Cross: So, the result was a capital project that included the development of the recovery center. So, the turnaround also included an emphasis on visibility. We’re very fortunate; the State of Indiana let out a request for proposals, and we were able to receive the contract to be the provider of addiction education to all the state-funded addiction programs in the state of Indiana. That brought us a great amount of visibility.

Helene Cross: And very, very, very important to this period of time was the continuation of the Richard M. Fairbanks funds, both personally from him before he died and then from his foundation. When we finally did build the recovery center and dedicated, if you look at the plaque outside of your office there on the wall of the building, you’ll see that it’s a recovery center dedicated to Richard M. Fairbanks, Jr. Remember him at that meeting and how important he was to us.

Helene Cross: And during this time, we also expanded. Our focus was, what else can we do in this community? And we were able, through the generosity of a community member, to acquire the La Verna Lodge for Men, and we also expanded our supported living, which was obviously important to the role and goal of offering long-term recovery.

Kathleen Gill: Many, many successes along the way, not to mention Hope Academy that opened the doors when the recovery center opened in 2007. Indiana’s first and only, to this very day, recovery high school, which was definitely what brought me to Fairbanks and I began to get plugged in here.

Kathleen Gill: So, Fairbanks is stable and successful. And then, Helene, you retire in roughly 2012, and along comes the opioid crisis, which creates once again many changes and shifts in the model of treatment and the way insurance is paying. Rusty, share with us, if you will, your observations of where Fairbanks was around this time, and what those changes meant.

Rusty McKay: You know, usually for someone who goes through drug treatment, their period of time in the facility is not something that they remember with great pleasure. It’s a difficult environment, and we needed to have them stay connected. It’s a proven medical fact that men and women who remain connected with a 12-step program for a period of time after treatment for at least a year have a much geometrically higher rate of recovery in five years than those who try to do this on their own.

We added a women’s lodge, and one of the ways we tried to address the opioid crisis was to create a medically assisted treatment.

Helene Cross: And first of all, I think what we saw on the scene here locally is our success helped bring more competition. There were for-profits and others who came to town because they saw that Fairbanks was a place people who had the need for treatment, and who wanted to focus on recovery, came. So, our world of success brought others. So, that was one definite change in the marketplace.

Helene Cross: But more important even than that was a change that was affecting hospitals. In the last 10 years, hospitals began to rely much more on analytics because of population health. You’ve heard those words, it was a focus, and it basically said, how do we… very importantly, how do we help keep our population more healthy, and what are the issues that are causing the higher cost issues, and the issues that mean earlier deaths for people? What are those issues, and what can we know about them?

Helene Cross: And as you would guess, untreated addiction was high on that list.

Rusty McKay: And the culture at Community Hospital in the organization was one that we thought we could blend with very significantly. So, there were discussions that began between our CEO, Barb Elliot, and the board, with a number of people at Community. I think that was… that decision was executed in late 2019.

Helene Cross: This was a painful time. I think everyone really understood that it was an opportunity but it was also painful, and it was, as you said, under the leadership of the third CEO, Barb Elliot, that the time came to really finalize this, and she made it happen. And she made it happen by developing the relationship and the partnership and the merger with Community.

Helene Cross: And now, we have a system that’s totally committed to integrating addiction into their system, and to grow, I think, the reach of Fairbanks. And I remember talking with Brian Mills, the CEO of Community, some years ago when we were talking about population health, and what that might mean, how population health would affect Community, and the pressure on reimbursement. And he said that the integration of addiction treatment into primary care and into their system was the right thing to do, with or without population health. And he understands and is committed to a comprehensive treatment and recovery program.

Helene Cross: And I think what Fairbanks has experienced now because of COVID is the momentum of that agreement that was created a year ago, has really slowed it down. But combining… just think about the talents at Fairbanks, the people like Rusty and all of those who are leadership, board, volunteers, the commitment of the people within Community Hospital, the professionals in the field of addiction and mental health, the professionals of Fairbanks…

Helene Cross: Combining those staffs together, that we have an incredible possibility that will take that commitment and expertise and have great outcomes for the people in our community who need help.

Kathleen Gill: Yes, indeed. And what a wonderful opportunity… as you mentioned, in 2019, Fairbanks did integrate with Community Health Network. It is an integrated recovery service that we have to offer between the behavioral health pavilion, the addiction services that we offer jointly, it is potentially one of the largest systems of care for mental health and addiction in the state of Indiana. And we are very, very fortunate. It is so wonderful…

Kathleen Gill: You know, we also want to make sure we mention just a little bit about the continuum of care that we offer today at Fairbanks. There is a new program called Residential Treatment. It’s not really new, but it’s somewhat shifted over the years, and while the detox programs have been driven by insurance and today… we started out with 28-day service, we’ve gone to 15-day… today, that in-patient detox treatment is about a five-to-eight-day opportunity for somebody to come in and have that assistance getting off the drugs and alcohol.

Kathleen Gill: About four months ago, we opened up the residential services program that once again allows a patient to transition from detox into an extended stay, giving them about a 20-to-30-day stay at Fairbanks. And so, it is so interesting how history repeats itself, and there have been the ebbs and flows throughout the 75 years that Fairbanks has been around, but we have been a constant in this community. And I hope that we are here for another 75.

Helene Cross: Just imagine, I mean, imagine in the Community Health Network system the numbers of primary care physicians, and imagine if there’s an assessment that includes the issues related to substance use disorder in addition to other physical assessments that occur at the time of a physical, and that the stigma cannot be there, and we can talk about it the same way we talk about a diagnosis of diabetes or any other problem, and the person sitting there will understand and will recognize the need that they begin to develop a life that focuses on treatment and recovery if they need it.

Helene Cross: Imagine, I mean, so much is about the stigma. Doctors don’t mention it, and patients certainly don’t mention it until you see it on an exam or a liver test or something else but imagine if we’re integrated into that system and that all those thousands of primary care docs are involved as partners with us, and then people who need help will get it when they need it, not wait until physically they’re so sick that they may die from it.

Helene Cross: And I think that’s one of the beauties of the partnership, that we have a place, we have a location, we’re across the street from the main hospital, and we can be a part of that system. And that we’ll continue to grow the expertise. I mean, there will continue to be new innovations in treatment. It will always be needed. Alcoholism and drug addiction are not going away. We know we’re talking about issues that are genetic. We know that individuals will continue, kids will continue, their brains will continue because of the use of alcohol or drugs to develop them into the brains of someone who is addicted to substances. We know the need. We have to figure out ways to reach people and through primary care, I think we can reach more people rather than being an emergency in an emergency room.

Helene Cross: So, I think our partnership will begin to develop that even more, and as the world continues over the next few years, the need will be greater and as a result, Fairbanks will grow. We may need more facilities. We certainly will need more people out there developing and helping primary care doctors understand and do those assessments. So, I’m very hopeful. I’m very hopeful for what we have here in our community, and I’m very hopeful for what we have in our country because I think we’ve opened up a lot in the last few years, and that will begin to help reduce stigma and provide more care at the very beginning.

Kathleen Gill: Well, indeed, the need will continue. The COVID pandemic that is upon us has mental health skyrocketing, and addictions skyrocketing, and I believe that there will be outcomes that will demand more from treatment providers for this pandemic. Thank you to both of you for spending your time with us today talking about the rich history of Fairbanks. Helene, for your 12 years as President and CEO of this organization; Rusty, for your 20 years of passion and input into the health and success of Fairbanks, we appreciate you both so very much for painting this picture for our listeners. It is a joy to be a part of an organization that is able to help so many along the way.

Kathleen Gill: So, we do… Helene, you mentioned this before, kind of our motto here at Fairbanks is Together We Can, and that is an open-ended statement that we end our podcast with. And so, if I were to ask you some examples of finishing that statement, how would you finish the statement: Together We Can…

Kathleen Gill: Helene, we’ll go to you first.

Helene Cross: Oh, I think it’s, together we can with an expert staff. Together we can with peer support, 12 steps, smart recovery. Together we can with family and social support. Together we can with social and legal services, together we can with psychiatric follow-up, together we can with primary care follow-up. We have a network there that is a big family, and it takes, as I said, more than one person to go far.

Kathleen Gill: I like that proverb that you stated. Can you say that for us again?

Helene Cross: “If you want to go fast, do it alone. If you want to go far, go with others.”

Kathleen Gill: Together we must. It takes a village. It takes all of us. So, this has been Recovery Talks. A Fairbanks Podcast. This has been Recovery Talks: A Fairbanks Podcast. If you or a loved one need support in the journey of recovery, the experts at Fairbanks Treatment and Recovery Center can help.

Visit our website Fairbankscd.org for recovery resources or call 800-225-HOPE for immediate help. Thanks for listening!