This article will be part of a package of stories on opioids in the auto industry to be published in the Nov. 27 issue of Automotive News.
Patrick Kullman’s job at Ford Motor Co.’s Louisville Assembly Plant in the spring of 2012 was to do this: Bend over, pick up a set of grille shutters from a bin on the ground and attach the shutters to a Ford Escape inching past him. Repeat for 11 hours.
Within a few months, Kullman developed a painful hernia protruding through his stomach muscles. He needed surgery to insert a mesh net in his abdomen, and afterward his doctor prescribed a high dose of Norco, a high-risk narcotic.
“You wouldn’t think you would get hurt from doing something like that if you do it once, but once you do it 700 times a night, then it starts to become a different process,” he said. “I was a kid. I’m 28 now. I was 23, 22. I thought I did something wrong.”
During Kullman’s recovery, his problems multiplied. He quickly developed an addiction, and without another prescription, he began seeking out others in the plant with drug connections. They weren’t difficult to find.
“At least with pain pills, you knew how much you were using, and you could regulate accordingly, to a degree,” Kullman said. “Heroin, on the other side, your drug dealer does not give you a warning label. It was a lot cheaper, it was a lot more efficient.”
In two years working for Ford, Kullman was in treatment for opioid addiction four times, three of which were paid for by the automaker.
“People in my life were always a little resentful towards Ford, like ‘Ford did this to me.’ Ford didn’t do this to me,” Kullman said. “There’s just a lot of people in that facility that use drugs and alcohol, and we’re all packed in the same place, so it’s easier to ask each other for stuff. When it came to the point where I reached out for help, Ford was right there.”
Kevin Bush, an employee support representative at Louisville Assembly, sees stories like Kullman’s play out all too often. The first thing a treatment provider will tell you, Bush said, is that for any chance of recovery, people with addictions need to remove those who misuse drugs from their lives.
“The Ford employees have no other choice,” Bush said. “They have to come back and make a living for their families. Their job may be next to somebody who’s using, or they used to run around doing things that’s not positive for this individual in recovery.”
Kullman received treatment in an outpatient program with another line worker at the plant who had turned him onto heroin. They later relapsed together.
Kullman with his son.
Although Kullman took twice the amount of heroin his co-worker did, it was the other man who overdosed and died.
“That set off like a fight-or-flight instinct in me,” Kullman said. “I was scared. I ran back to HR.”
Ford paid for Kullman to fly to a recovery program in Alabama, and he returned to the night shift at Louisville Assembly.
“I had every intention to stay sober this time,” he said. “The guys on my line were really supportive of me. We would pray together on the line before the line started moving. They would check in on my sobriety to see how I was doing.”
But his work schedule made it hard to get to support-group meetings, and he stopped going after a month. One day his back started hurting, and while smoking a cigarette outside during a break, a co-worker offered him a pain pill.
A third round of treatment — three weeks, paid for out of pocket this time — had no better result.
“It didn’t help at all. I wasn’t ready. I went back to work. The same thing happened again,” he said. “I’m back on this line — the same routine where there’s no one around and there’s no accountability. Heroin got me again.”
After cashing that year’s Ford profit-sharing check, Kullman overdosed on a mixture of heroin and methamphetamines. He started getting to work late, then stopped going at all. He attempted suicide.
“I tried to inject enough drugs into my system that it would stop my heart, and the worst thing in the world happened the next morning: I woke up,” Kullman said. “I decided to go to work. I found Kevin and said I need to go back to treatment.”
Bush was Kullman’s main point of contact throughout his recovery attempts. He helped coordinate his services and visited him in the treatment centers. After Kullman’s fourth stint in treatment, Bush switched him to the day shift so he could go to group meetings more easily.
But on his first day back to work, Kullman had a panic attack in the parking lot. He left and went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He never returned to Ford.
Kullman, sober for almost three and a half years, now works at Landmark Recovery, a new drug and alcohol treatment center that’s not far from Louisville Assembly. He said his history with Ford helps him rehabilitate workers from the plant, with whom he generally works one-on-one.
“I knew if I went back to work, I was going to relapse,” he said. “The moment that I was most ashamed of in life [was] quitting Ford Motor Co. to stay sober. I did what I had to do to live. And now I have this purpose again. My No. 1 goal is to be there for somebody that’s been where I was, to get them where I’m at.”
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