He’s sitting near the hospital bed, his deep, baritone voice quiet as he listens to a tearful patient details his struggles to stay sober.
“My man,” William Dantzler said gently, leaning slightly toward the young man whose cheeks glistened with tears. “Live for you.”
The moment was brief at the end of a 10-minute interaction deep inside the purple pod psychiatric care unit in the Hartford Hospital Emergency Department. But the patient’s face visibly relaxed as he relayed his story and absorbed Dantzler’s thoughtful feedback.
“I don’t like to intrude,” said Dantzler, who started as a recovery support specialist (RSS) in October. “I’m seeing people at their worst but can’t see the worst. I always approach them with respect and humility because they’re hanging on by a thread.”
He is part of the cadre of RSSs present in emergency departments across Hartford HealthCare. A graduate of the Institute of Living (IOL) Recovery Academy, Dantzler brings real-life experience to the role. Diagnosed with hypomania bipolar disorder and sober for 10 years, he understands addiction intimately.
“I bring lived experience, insight and empathy,” he said. “Patients realize I’ve been there and understand where they’re at. It gives them comfort seeing there is a way out.”
The 47-year-old New Britain man worked as a mental health nurse for 20 years. The father of six, grandfather of two, was drinking too much and smoking pot to bury the pain of an undiagnosed mental illness.
“It took me 20 years to realize that I was only making the next day worse for me,” he said.
Even on his worst days, however, Dantzler wrote in his journal as a way to get the negative emotions out.
“My thoughts were going so fast but I didn’t have the ability to explain them to anyone,” he said. “Journaling was a reprieve.”
When he started working as a RSS, at almost half the pay of his nursing job, journaling was one suggestion he started making to patients. On an average day, he sits down with 15 to 20 to see how he can help and suggest ways to stay sober.
“I give them a little bit of my energy to help them take one step when they don’t think they can,” Dantzler said. “I tell them, ‘I’m your priest, your rabbi, your Buddha. I’m your everything!’ We’re working on more than recovery here – we want them to get to a place where they’re functioning at their best.”
Understanding that the concept of “help” is personal, he asks each person what helps looks like to them.
“Our expectations are limited to our experiences,” he said. “The goal is to treat whatever they are presenting with, and my part is to give them tools to take home to decrease their stress and anxiety. When they understand the symptoms, their health becomes more self-sufficient. Hopefully, that decreases the chances that they return to the hospital.”
The connection is like no other for both patients and Dantzler, who recalled a patient who “was like looking at myself.”
“To see him in such a high place, I just put my clipboard down and said ‘Let’s talk,’” he said of interaction with the patient and his mother. “His mother said it was the first time in 20 years anyone had ever seen him.
“It wakes me up to be part of these people’s lives every day, to make even a small mark on their recovery.”
The RSS, Dantzler continued, is “like a spider with a leg in everywhere” on the unit and even beyond. He bridges the gap between the clinical team and the patients, helping clinicians spot early signs of substance withdrawal and following up with patients relocated to inpatient care at the IOL.
“They tell me they don’t have a support system but I tell them ‘You have one,’” he said, tapping his chest. “It makes me feel good to know my patients know they have someone to talk to. Building small relationship makes things so much better for them.”