Lorne Hildebrand, Executive Director at Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, B.C., and Cara Vaccarino, Chief Operating Officer at the Edgewood Health Network.
By Jeff Vircoe
The sign on the office door by the nursing desk says, simply, Executive Director.
Though Lorne Hildebrand hasn’t been in his office full time for a year now, after more than two decades since he first climbed into the trenches, one thing is certain; he’s still very much in the game.
He’s not gone. He’s surely not forgotten.
Hildebrand, who turned 61 last week, is a Kelowna-born, African- and European-raised, scuba diving, businessman turned addiction expert who has worn a myriad of hats during his tenure at Edgewood.
Hildebrand has one of those faces and a voice Edgewood alumni and referral agents never forget. He meets with doctors, generals, politicians and family members. He’s spoken at addiction conferences around the globe on behalf of the treatment centre that has been so focal to his life. He’s presented his Neurology of Addiction lecture to patients, counselors, social workers and students for many years. With a resume like that, Hildebrand has often been called in as a heavy hitter, of sorts, when a doubtful patient is letting addiction get in the way of a logical decision to stay in treatment. He can give what-for with the best of them.
Yet, there’s nary a whiff of addiction in his family. He clearly does what he does because it matters.
“In sobriety, in recovery or not, at some point there is something inside of you, and it’s a spiritual thing, where you are lifted to a different level and you say, ‘I am doing this because it is important and I am making a difference. And I can help. That’s what you need to do here at Edgewood,” he says, explaining his presence years after he could have comfortably retired from the day-to-day stressors of life and deaths in a treatment environment.
Hildebrand came to Edgewood in 1995. With a business background from BCIT, Edgewood cofounder Jane Ferguson had asked him to help stabilize the centre’s growth and develop a marketing plan. He agreed to a two-year contract and, like so many long-term Edgewood employees, discovered a calling instead.
The son of an exchange teacher who taught overseas in Ghana, England and Germany, he lived part time in those countries for most of his upbringing with his folks and his two older brothers.
“We’d have summer breaks where dad would buy a Volkswagen camper and we’d spend three months driving across Europe,” he says.
As a business consultant, prior to Edgewood, Hildebrand says he would forensically go into a business and help them face what was wrong with their operation. He made great money, but it had its downside.
“The part that I hated was it was all travel,” he says. “So, you never get a job in the town you were in. I worked at Whistler, Vernon twice, Kelowna. Ontario. Everywhere.”
He arrived on Vancouver Island 25 years ago for contracts at Malaspina College and the Nanaimo Hospital. Like many arrivals to the Island, it took him some time to settle into Island life.
“That first year in Nanaimo it was like, ‘Oh my god, what am I doing in this place? I need to be in Vancouver. The big city. This is not good for my business, right?’ But, I gotta tell you, I am a scuba diver and a boater and, after a year, I started to think, ‘Now this isn’t as bad as I thought.’”
“Now, you couldn’t pry me off this rock with a crowbar. There’s boating, there’s diving, there’s everything here. Except all my kids. They’ve all buggered off down the road. I think that’s a little unfair, but …” he says with a shrug.
His already-busy life changed one day in 1995, when a MacMillan Bloedel executive and squash partner/pal encouraged him to meet with Jane Ferguson at Edgewood. It was meant to be.
Though he had no background in treatment, his relentless enthusiasm and business acumen began to bear fruit. With better marketing and structure, making connections in the business world and shaking up the business model, he helped Ferguson and staff turn financial instability into solid plans and bankable consistency. Hildebrand certainly doesn’t take all the credit, saying that “it was very much a team effort” that turned things around. But, it was his ensuing education about the disease of addiction that changed his life.
“I had no addictions in the family, so coming into this was a great experience for me. I came in knowing nothing other than what I had generally seen on TV and the media. I had a complete misunderstanding of what was going on,” he says. “I hadn’t a clue. I was like the average person out there [who] doesn’t want to, or hasn’t had any need to, deal with addictions. If someone had said, ‘Do you know it is a disease,’ I couldn’t have even answered that. What do you mean it’s a disease? I’m not even sure what a disease is. So, I absolutely had to start from scratch.”
In order to market something as profound as addiction treatment, especially with an expensive, private-care provider, Hildebrand knew he needed to get up to speed fast. At the time, part of Edgewood’s marketability was dramatically hampered by a lack of professional-level marketing materials. The standard reply when pushed by enquiring minds for information about modalities, techniques or evidence-based explanations was, “We just do what we do,” Hildebrand recalls.
That wasn’t going to cut it if Edgewood was to earn a strong reputation.
“I said to Jane, ‘People need that. They can’t just go by ‘Jane thinks this’ and it’s okay.’ So, I said part of my [two-year] contract, if I’m going to build the marketing department, [was] to change some of these business plans. I’m going to approach some of these folks, [so] I need to clearly understand what’s going on. I’m going to go to all these conferences, I’m going to meet people and I’m going to talk to them. We identified some of the key people in the industry that were really important to talk to. One of those was Dr. Carleton Erickson from the University of Texas, who was quite amazing, and another five or six people from around the world [who] had some really good understanding of the disease. So, I went and met these people.”
Essentially, Hildebrand received his own definitions of the terminology used in addiction without sitting in classes. He did it by learning face to face with leaders in the field.
“I sat there at one point at a conference and I had the three top addiction scientists in front of me. One of them was in recovery and the others were also supportive of the 12 Step [model]. I got to ask them any questions I wanted. I was just blessed. I had [a living] Google in front of me. Real people – the leading minds in the field.”
His inquisitiveness paid off.
“I got to come back and bounce it off people like Dr. Mel Vincent, because at that point Mel had started with us. I was really interested in it all and I’d say, ‘Mel, how does this sound,’ and he would say, ‘Go get this text book.’ We spent a lot of time talking. Out of that, I developed a better understanding of what the disease is and where it fits in to how the DSM IV (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) works … how all those things fit together.”
It’s a journey that few ever get to embark on.
“As I went around and started to do my little lectures about the disease, I started to do lectures to physicians. I’d have physicians [and] psychiatrists come up to me and say, ‘That was the clearest understanding of addiction I’ve ever heard. It was in simple language … simple because I could understand it, and I needed to understand it,’” says Hildebrand. “I was able to make it very clear. It was a fascinating experience. Essentially, it started from [my need] to know more for Edgewood, and it’s turned into, oh my goodness, the stuff I’ve learned most people, even our docs, don’t get training in.”
As Edgewood readied for its second decade of existence, on track financially, vibrant and viable, tragedy struck hard. Jane Ferguson was killed in a plane crash in August 2003. The families, staff and patients reeled in shock and grief, while the very existence of Edgewood was in question. It was an intensely sad, difficult stretch of days, weeks and months.
Life goes on and wounds begin to close. In collaboration with Jane’s family, for Lorne and the senior staff, within a short time it became clear that Edgewood was going forward. Hildebrand was to be the Executive Director. Hildebrand recalls it this way:
“The first meeting we had, we brought all the staff together. Everyone had assumed that, with Jane gone, Edgewood would fall apart. Everyone [believed this]. Staff. The patients. The outside world. Everybody,” he says. “We brought all the staff together and we said we are still going to do what we do. It’s going to be business as usual. I’m taking over and this is the way it’s going to work. We picked up and didn’t miss a beat. We had one day when we thought everything would fall apart, right? So, we took everyone offsite, had a big meeting and went through everything. By the next day, we were back running.”
Soon, he and his senior management team bought into the operation, and Hildebrand eventually bought out his partners.
Under his guidance, the Edgewood Health Network was formed three years ago by Hildebrand and a group of private investors. Treatment centres and clinics appeared across Canada and in Seattle. Bellwood Health Services in Toronto joined and became the eastern flagship of the company.
To this day, the situation is fluid as EHN continues to find its place in a market filled with specialized treatment of addiction and mental health issues.
At Edgewood, there have been significant changes in staff and policies regarding how best to serve our patients. For his part, Hildebrand is convinced the centre remains on the right track.
“Edgewood has changed and I’m proud of the changes. It’s a little bit like looking at the Concurrent Trauma and Addiction program we are about to introduce. Not everybody needs it. But the people [who] do have trauma and addiction clearly need it. So I think we have changed, yes,” he says.
“You know, we can’t be so convinced that we are perfect [so] we aren’t open to change. Nobody in A.A. would ever suggest that, either. You can’t be so arrogant as to believe you must be perfect. We have lots more to go, and we continue to explore different options that are available to us. We should do that. But that’s only the first part of what I am saying. You can have all kinds of change – if you stay true to the basics. And the basics are compassion and [the] 12 steps. Those two things have to be consistent in our program, and I think they are.”
Last year, Hildebrand began stepping down from his full-time position, taking on more of a consultant role with the Network. Along with senior leaders like Elizabeth Loudon, Clinical Director, and Colleen Ward, Director of Operations, the course continues to be plotted at Edgewood.
For his part, besides adding his two cents into where Edgewood is heading, Hildebrand has begun to spearhead a major commercial enterprise off campus. He is president of the Nanaimo Deep Discovery Association, an organization of Nanaimo citizens and business partners committed to educating people about the understanding of our oceans by bringing a Disney-park-style centre to the city. Plans for this highly interactive, fun and educational facility would tell the story of the evolution of deep sea exploration and technology, and could include rides, submarines and virtual ocean experiences without having to get wet.
“We want to create something in Nanaimo that is going to be a huge economic engine for the city. There would be nothing like it in the world. We’ve had some studies done on it. It would bring in millions of dollars. Cruise ship companies would come in here. We would put it down on the waterfront. It would be iconic, like Science World in Vancouver. People would come from all over the world to see it. It’s very cool,” he says enthusiastically.
Ocean-sized plans aside, as he moves from office to office of politicians, businessmen, volunteers and others on his journey, Hildebrand keeps a close eye on his true love, Edgewood. He remains confident and happy as to its direction and future. Edgewood continues to rely on two strong principles to guide itself forward, he says, and, as long as that is the case, the centre will continue to fulfill its mandate of educating, training and supporting families in their quest for sobriety.
“We are doing the same things we’ve always done,” says Hildebrand. “Twelve Step and compassion is what made us what we are. Twelve Step and compassion is what is going to keep us strong going forward.”