After five years, Ann “Nan” LaVecchia has now earned her wings.
For the past five years, LaVecchia has served as Aviation Program coordinator at Cornerstone of Recovery, as well as a coordinator for several of the drug and alcohol treatment center’s program tracks. LaVecchia was recently named Aviation Program Director. Given her credentials — she’s a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor (LADAC), a Substance Abuse Professional (SAP), a National Certified Addiction Counselor (NCAC) and a National Certified Peer Recovery Specialist (NCPRSS) — as well as her work within the Aviation Program, she’s the ideal individual to continue Cornerstone’s long-standing relationship with the airline industry, says Sally Lukas, who established Cornerstone’s Aviation Program in 2007.
“I’m excited to be working with Nan, and our goal is to continue the value of Cornerstone’s Aviation Program for all who attend,” says Lukas, who retired as program director in 2016 but continues to serve as a consultant and industry liaison. “She’s highly qualified and knows about the wants and needs of the individuals in this program, as well as the requirements needed to comply with all government regulations.”
Exacting recovery standards
Because of the safety sensitive nature of the aviation industry, treatment of individuals in that industry who have drug and/or alcohol problems require much more exacting standards than those asked of other patients. Pilots, for example, are required by Federal Aviation Administration regulations to meet certain medical standards in order to fly. The FAA issues a medical certificate, but those pilots with a drug or alcohol problem have those certificates pulled. In order to obtain a Special Issuance certificate that allows them to return to duty, they’re required to:
- Receive an official diagnosis by a trained addiction professional;
- Complete a minimum of 28 days of residential inpatient addiction and alcoholism treatment;
- Take part in comprehensive aftercare, including but not limited to 12 Step recovery meetings; and
- Agree to long-term monitoring.
While there are plenty of reputable drug and alcohol treatment center options, few meet the standards of care required by the FAA through its affiliated HIMS programs. HIMS stands for Human Intervention Motivation Study and “is specific to pilots and coordinates the identification, treatment and return to the cockpit of impaired aviators. It is an industry-wide effort in which companies, pilot unions, and FAA work together to preserve careers and further air safety,” according to the program’s website.
Each airline is responsible for its own HIMS protocols, while the FAA provides a HIMS contract to each carrier. The FAA provides funding for seminars, databases and advisory boards, but the individual programs are funded by the companies themselves and the various industry unions. Treatment facilities are required to complete large amounts of necessary paperwork to help addicted pilots obtain Special Issuance certificates, and even those who aren’t in the cockpit — flight attendants, for example — often face more stringent treatment demands in order to return to work.
At Cornerstone of Recovery, LaVecchia and Lukas have been instrumental in meeting the needs of those patients, as well as the rigorous standards required by the FAA and various airlines. In 2018, more than 75 pilots were treated at Cornerstone, and because of long-term monitoring and aftercare requirements, more than 80 percent of aviation professionals who complete treatment never relapse.
A unique population
Cornerstone’s Aviation Program encompasses so much more than simple attention to detail or proper documentation. The core issues of addiction and alcoholism must be addressed before any paperwork can be completed, and that’s where clinical personnel like LaVecchia excel, says Lukas.
“Cornerstone does a good job for everyone, in that each patient is treated as an individual,” she says. “They’re not all lumped together into one group, and we pay attention to what their needs are.”
There are, LaVecchia adds, a number of unique industry-related issues that prove challenging for the Aviation Program population, many of them tied directly to their respective positions. Many pilots, for example, are former members of the U.S. military and may have trauma issues related to their service; irregular schedules combined with shifting time zones and disrupted sleeping patterns can make for a great deal of instability.
“And while they get comfortable with that, it’s not necessarily a healthy lifestyle, and that leave them vulnerable to unhealthy coping mechanisms that are easily accessible,” LaVecchia says. “And then there are the standards — the unrelenting standards they place on themselves, and the standards required by their jobs.”
“When they put on the uniform, they’re expected to do what they’ve got to do, irrespective to what’s going on at home,” Lukas adds. “Back when I went to (flight attendant) school in 1969, they taught us to pack two bags — one for what you need for a trip, and one for your problems at home. And when you leave for that trip, you only take the one bag. It’s the putting on of a uniform — once the uniform is on, you have to support that and become that.”
A commitment to safety and recovery
And sometimes, that comes with a heavy cost — one LaVecchia knows well. A graduate of the College of Charleston, she’s a mother, a former private business owner and in recovery herself. As an alumna of Cornerstone, she’s experienced addiction treatment on both sides of the process, and she’s a passionate advocate for the transformative powers of recovery.
As the new Aviation Program director, she’s eager to bring her experiences to bear — on helping aviation professionals recover, and getting them back to a job that’s enmeshed in their identities.
“We follow the guidelines of the FAA and work hand-in-hand with our referral sources,” Lukas says. “The FAA has a process for returning a pilot to the cockpit, and there are steps that need to be taken and paperwork that needs to be submitted, and that’s why attention to detail is so important.
“Already, Nan has been one of the program’s best advocates for the care that we provide — and the work that’s necessary to gain Cornerstone recognition as an aviation industry leader. That’s one reason Cornerstone holds an annual aviation conference with participation from the FAA and our HIMS referral sources. They know we respect the process and will do everything required of us to ensure not just the recovery of these people, but also to ensure that safety isn’t compromised.”