Senior nursing student in recovery hopes to improve care for veterans with SUD

For Holly Perkins, improving substance use disorder treatment and patient care is personal.

“I grew up in West Virginia and I have seen first-hand the devastating effects of SUD,” said Perkins, a senior at the WVU School of Nursing. “I am in recovery from SUD myself and too many times I have been stigmatized, fearful, shamed and made to feel guilty for my past.”

The North Central West Virginia native knew she wanted to focus on SUD for the senior capstone project for her community health course. When speaking with Lou Ortenzio from the Clarksburg Mission, which offers ministry outreach, recovery programs and shelter for veterans, he encouraged Perkins to tell her story.

After some traumatic experiences in her childhood, Perkins turned to drugs as a way to ease her pain. She ultimately sought help at Chestnut Ridge Hospital, where she received life-changing and life-affirming care.

“My therapist still holds sessions with me today and reminds me to let go of the shame and guilt of my past. I just want to drive home the fact that people in recovery and especially people in active addiction are so worthy of good things,” Perkins said. “SUD still carries so much nasty stigma because there is still a great lack in education. When we use substance use disorder to describe addiction, we are confirming that it is indeed a disorder and a disease.”

Perkins completed her community clinical hours at the VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, which gave her a real sense of purpose. She also has several personal ties to the armed forces. Her grandfather was a Marine, and many of her friends are in the military. One friend in particular, a former Army Ranger, had a compelling story that left a lasting impact on Perkins. She said he struggled with opioid addiction and had attempted suicide. He wanted to get control of his life, so he reached out to the VA for mental health services, which ultimately saved his life.

She decided to blend her passion for improving the conversation around SUD with her passion for the veteran population in her senior project. As part of her research, Perkins learned that West Virginia has one of the highest veteran populations in the United States. She also learned that veterans are statistically at an increased risk for developing SUD when compared to the general population.

As part of her capstone, Perkins has connected with veterans to share her story. She has provided facts around SUD to dispel myths and encouraged people to feel safe and supported in asking for help when they are struggling. She has also compiled a resources list with treatment locations, meeting times, contact information, and steps on how to get started.

“Recovery is a monumental task, but if you just take it one step at a time, it is possible. We do recover and we are so valuable. By the end of my presentation, I hope my participants will be able to see addiction as a disease and then have the empowerment and resources to get help or help someone else.”

While Perkins had hoped to follow a different path than her mother, she wound up following closely in her footsteps: “My mother was a nurse. My mother also suffered from SUD. And she had four children. Three things I said I’d never do when I was younger — I wouldn’t be a nurse, I would never do drugs, and I would never have children.”

She is now in her senior year of nursing school, more than six years into recovery, and she has two beautiful children.

“The universe works very mysteriously,” she said. “I wanted to become a nurse because I am so incredibly passionate about helping people. I have seen so much suffering in my 33 years; I want to be that person that holds the hand of someone who may rarely know human compassion. I want to be the person who, in some small way, is able to soothe an ounce of suffering experienced in the world.

“As a nurse, we are so deeply and instantly trusted by people who just met us; it is my duty to honor this trust by being completely and genuinely empathetic and compassionate in my care, doing my absolute best to care for this person who is having one of the worst days of their lives. I want to be a force of goodness and compassion in a world that has seen a lot of apathy, especially since COVID.”

After graduating in August, Perkins hopes to begin working at a VA Medical Center. Eventually, she hopes to become a nurse practitioner and open a specialized clinic in West Virginia for gynecological care for the LGBTQ+ population.

“So many trans men aren’t getting the care they need because there isn’t exactly a comfortable/welcoming place for them in gynecology. I would like to be a welcoming place for people who want obstetrics care that may not be the cookie-cutter version of a family,” she said. “I want to also offer hope to those who are struggling with SUD and are also getting ready to have a baby. I have so many ideas, but I think these issues are so important, especially in West Virginia.”


CONTACT: Wendy Holdren
Director of Communications and Marketing
WVU School of Nursing