Rosa Davis starts her workday with obituaries.
Madelon Edelstone, the development director at POWER — the Pennsylvania Organization of Women in Early Recovery, where Davis is executive director — cuts the obituaries of people who died of alcohol and opioid addictions from the Post-Gazette and leaves them on Davis’ desk before she arrives to work.
According to Edelstone, Davis saves them in a folder and sometimes brings them to meetings about the opioid crisis in western Pennsylvania.
“She’s an incredibly brave and hardworking woman,” Edelstone said. “She’s so dedicated to her work.”
POWER was founded in 1991 and provides trauma-informed care to women across Allegheny County. It runs a 25-bed halfway house, offers in-home drug and alcohol assessment and counseling, provides personal and group therapy sessions and has an intensive outpatient program.
Davis was hired as the executive director in 1992 after graduating from Pitt with a master’s degree in social work in 1986. Before POWER, she worked as a youth advocate and a juvenile justice probation officer, and in the Allegheny County foster care system.
Under Davis’ leadership, POWER grew from eight staffers in 1991 to more than 70 today. She will receive an award on Oct. 3 as one of Pitt’s School of Social Work’s 2018 Outstanding Alumni.
“It’s a real honor,” Davis said.
Davis may work among it every day, but even joining POWER she was no stranger to adversity. When she was 14 months old, a family friend accidentally set her on fire.
Her father, Salvatore, was a tailor who immigrated from Rome to Rochester in 1958 to supervise the Genesco factory floor. Her mother, Giacomina, met him in Italy and followed him to the New World. They had Rosa the following year, and while at work, would leave her in the care of a family friend for lunch semi-regularly.
One day, that friend accidentally set some cement glue ablaze in the process of remodeling his kitchen. On his way to throw it out, he dropped it on the infant Davis’ head.
“I don’t remember it, but it destroyed my mother,” Davis said, citing their relationship as the template for her dedication to POWER.
She underwent 35 surgeries after the fire between ages two and 15, and her mother accompanied her to every hospital visit. Despite Giacomina’s imperfect command of English, she learned the specific medical terminology of Davis’ injuries and kept up to date on her progress with every doctor.
“She was always my biggest advocate. She’d sleep in the hospital chair,” Davis said.
Davis carried her mother’s lessons into her work at POWER. In one specific case, she was able to do so with another burn victim.
Mary*, whose name was withheld due to HIPAA regulations, was a patient at POWER’s halfway house in Swissvale. Her husband set her on fire a year before she started treatment at POWER, and she suffered high-intensity burns over her face and body. Davis met her on a trip to the halfway house.
“I don’t remember anyone who looked like me growing up,” Davis said. “The first time I met someone who looked like me, who was in a fire, was at POWER.”
When Mary came to POWER, she met Davis and had the same experience.
“She looked up at me, and I remember feeling like she was relieved to meet someone who looked like her,” Davis said. “I felt the same.”
Davis later informed POWER staff how to appropriately work with Mary’s specific trauma. Mary would avoid public outings that the staff encouraged her to attend, saying that she felt like a “monster” due to her burns.
“I used to say the same thing to my mom as a teen,” Davis said. “I told the staff, ‘You have to give her time to grieve.’”
According to Davis, 60 to 90 percent of women with substance use disorders have a history of trauma — and the gender-specific nature of those traumas can interfere with treatment in mixed-gender facilities.
“The most common traumas we see are physical and sexual abuse,” Davis said. “If you’ve been abused at the hands of a man, and you’re in a mixed-gender facility, can you imagine talking in a group therapy session about that?”
Davis also said that women face specific stigmas in how their addictions are perceived compared to those of men. She compared two hypothetical patients, John and Kathy, who have families and otherwise identical addictions.
“Did you hear about John — he finally went to rehab! What a great thing for his family,” Davis said.
She contrasted that with common perceptions of female patients she’s encountered.
“Did you hear about Kathy?” Davis said, lowering her voice to a theatrical whisper. “She checked into rehab. How could she leave her kids?”
Deni Rust, a former POWER patient and current employee, experienced the stigma personally.
Rust struggled with alcoholism after her husband, Rich, died of cancer in 2004. Child services took custody of her children after she missed two after-school pick-ups.
“I knew that all the other parents were looking at me, but I had to walk into that school with my head held high,” Rust said.
Rust eventually checked into POWER’s intensive outpatient program and successfully recovered. She credits Davis as being an inspiration to her.
“You’d look at Rosa and think ‘I want to be like that,’” Rust said. “She was always so down to earth and available … even as she was running this whole place.”
Rust now works as an assessment specialist after being hired by POWER last year. She goes into homes where the Office of Children, Youth and Families has reason to believe there’s a parent with a substance use disorder. If she finds evidence the claims are true, she recommends them for treatment.
Sometimes she tells them her own story.
According to the U.S. surgeon general in 2016, nearly 21 million Americans struggle with substance addictions. Davis thinks that number underrepresents the number of women who struggle with addiction due to gender-specific stigma.
“They’re ashamed when they talk about it,” Davis said.
Davis will also undergo surgery for breast cancer this coming week. She said that addiction, in comparison, is treated as a moral failing — highlighting a stark difference in care.
“They valet-parked my car at the hospital. All of my appointments, my MRI, were made for me,” Davis said. “I can’t imagine [having a substance use disorder] and having to schedule your own appointments, to navigate the hospital system on your own.”
But to Davis, that type of quality treatment should be the standard, not the exception — including in cases of addiction.
“I’m grateful to everyone who’s treated me like this,” she said. “We need to start treating addiction like an illness, too.”
Correction: Davis was hired at POWER in 1992, not 1991.