Betty Ford helped pioneer drug addiction & alcohol treatment

Alcoholism was declared a disease by the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association in 1955.

But awareness of that concept grew slowly.

People didn’t stop laughing at drunk acts like Dean Martin and Foster Brooks until after Betty Ford opened her chemical dependency treatment center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in 1982.

Ford, who died Friday at age 93, helped create a new sobering reality for America by lending her name, energy and experience as a recovering addict to the center.

“The fact that Betty Ford lent her name to the center had a profound effect on the treatment of alcoholism,” said Dr. James West, a medical director at the Betty Ford Center from its opening until his April 2007 retirement.

“When she made it clear that she was the head of this place and a recovering person herself, that had a very profound effect on the whole system throughout the country.”

Ford embraced the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program while being treated at the Long Beach Naval Hospital’s Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation Service in 1978.

The Navy pioneered alcohol and drug treatment when it discovered its sailors were abusing drugs during the Vietnam War.

“The leader of the whole thing was a (chief of naval operations) named Adm. Elmo Zumwalt,” said retired Rear Adm. Bill Narva, a physician who became an Eisenhower Medical Center and Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center board member.

“He was interested in people and personnel and women and minorities, and the use of drugs and alcohol on the ships.

“I was his staff medical officer, and went through that with him in ’70-’74. There was a medical officer in Long Beach who had a clinic on one of the piers. Zumwalt said, ‘Put the damn thing in the hospital.’ That’s how it all began at Long Beach.”

Ford was admitted to the hospital’s treatment center after her daughter, Susan, told their mutual gynecologist, Dr. Joseph Cruse, her mother had a drug and alcohol problem.

Cruse was a recovering alcoholic who worked with addicted teens at a Desert Hot Springs facility called Turnoff. He contacted Dr. Joe Pursch of the Long Beach Naval Hospital, and they planned an intervention with Ford’s family. Pursch arranged for her to be detoxed in at home before being admitted to the Navy hospital as the spouse of a commander-in-chief.

Her hospital stay required rooming with three other recovering alcoholics, with no special treatment. Then she was released to an AA program. Her sponsor was the late Meri Bell, who received an acknowledgement in Ford’s book, “Betty: A Glad Awakening.”

Ford was encouraged to help other drug and alcohol addicts as part of her therapy, but Bell’s husband, the late Del Sharbutt, Eisenhower board President John Sinn and Chairwoman Dolores Hope sought to integrally involve the Fords in their medical center.

“After she got out of treatment,” Sharbutt told The Desert Sun in the 1990s, “Dolores called her and said, ‘You’re the new kid on the block. Do you see anything around here that we’re not doing that we ought to be doing?’

Read the full article at USATODAY.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.