Milwaukee emergency room doctor fights on frontline of three epidemics

Dr. Julie Doniere is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women across the country who have made a significant impact. The annual program is a continuation of Women of the Century, a 2020 project that commemorated the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.

Dr. Julianna “Julie” Doniere works in hospital emergency rooms in some of Milwaukee’s poorest ZIP codes, fighting three epidemics simultaneously: opioid addiction, gun violence and COVID-19.

But she doesn’t just treat patients and send them on their way.

When she noticed how many patients were struggling with addiction, she brought in recovery coaches and started one of the first programs in a Wisconsin emergency room to give away Narcan. When she saw too many young, otherwise healthy, men come into the hospital with gunshot wounds, she helped get gun locks to give away to help prevent accidental shootings. And as her staff, from custodians to physicians, has worked day after day battling a pandemic that seems to have no end, she checks in on them, making sure they are getting breaks and the support they need.

Every day in the emergency room, Doniere sees the lifesaving work of healthcare. But she also sees the problems doctors have yet to solve – and its those problems that drive the work she does today.

Doniere, a physician with Emergency Medicine Specialists working in the emergency departments at Ascension’s St. Joseph and St. Francis hospitals, is USA TODAY’s Women of the Year honoree from Wisconsin.

She has seen patients go from being homeless, unable to work, and visiting regularly trying to get opioids and other drugs, to finding work, a place to live, and freedom from their addiction.

Dr.  Julie Doniere holds a gun lock and Narcan at Ascension SE Wisconsin Hospital-St.  Joseph Campus in Milwaukee on Jan.  27. Doniere implemented programs to give both away for free in the emergency departments where she works.
Dr. Julie Doniere holds a gun lock and Narcan at Ascension SE Wisconsin Hospital-St. Joseph Campus in Milwaukee on Jan. 27. Doniere implemented programs to give both away for free in the emergency departments where she works.
Ebony Cox/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“We had a kid come in and he overdosed on heroin. This young man was extremely angry, yelling a myriad of obscenities. We asked him to wait just two minutes to learn about our free Narcan program,” Doniere said. “The pharmacist started talking about how to give Narcan. He started to cry and said that we were the first people to care.”

Her next goal is to get a recovery center on the north side of Milwaukee, where some of the city’s poorest residents live.

“Opioid disorder does not discriminate at all, but where discrimination does happen is how we are treating it,” she said. “It’s difficult to get treatment if it’s not near you and you don’t have the right transportation or you can’t take enough time off of work. We’re really trying to make a change on that and meet more patients where they are .”

With new programs in place to address opioid addiction among Milwaukee residents, Doniere began her next battle with an epidemic that pulled at her heart: gun violence.

“It’s devastating, and it makes me so sad. I cannot tell you the amount of times I’ve seen completely healthy men, usually African Americans and in their early 20s, who were healthy but their bodies have been ravaged by gun violence.

“What I’ve learned is it is a product of all the stressors in their lives, and all of the challenges that got them to the point where they got involved with gun violence,” she said.

While tirelessly working to fix those problems that plagued her ERs common for her ER patients, Doniere then had to battle the same COVID-19 pandemic that ravaged hospitals across the country and world.

Kevin Kluesner, former chief administrator at Ascension Hospitals, worked with Doniere for four years.

“First of all, she’s a great physician. But then you layer on top of that, she is a great human being,” Kluesner said. “She’s always trying to help the people in our community who are the most vulnerable.”

“She takes care of people who have acute episodes, but what I love about her is that she tries to work on those things, those social determinants of health, to prevent them from coming in for those emergency circumstances,” he said. “When they are under the care of Julie, they are getting the best care.”

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Women of the Year: Dr. Julie Doniere discusses opioids, COVID-19 and gun safety measures

As an Ascension St. Joseph ER doctor, Dr. Julie Doniere discusses her efforts and impact in three pandemics: opioids, COVID-19 and gun violence prevention.

Ebony Cox, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The pandemic has been a challenge for everyone, especially medical professionals.  What has helped you get through?

During the most challenging moments I look to the wonderful, smart, kind and unfalteringly brave team that I have the privilege to work with. I am inspired daily by the selflessness of the nurses that I work with. They have been flexible and steadfast. The physicians and mid-level providers that I work with are constantly checking on each other.

Part of my history-taking with each patient is asking about their vaccination status. Every single time a person tells me they are vaccinated, it gives me hope!

I am also blessed to have the greatest partner in the world. My husband Tim is my constant rock. He and my great kids Clyde and Jane are a constant support.

What do you want people to know about opioid addiction?

Opiate use disorder is a medical problem that does not discriminate and is not a moral failing. If you are affected by opiates, there is help and the medical community is here for you. If you or someone that you love struggles with opiates, it is important that you have naloxone (generic Narcan) on hand. Naloxone is a lifesaving drug that can be given by anyone to a person who has overdosed on opiates. There are support systems like the recovery coach program that we use that can support you where you are in your struggle. If you are at the point that you want to stop using opiates there are medications and behavioral therapies that can help you. There is hope!

Who did/do you look up to?

My mom celebrated her 90th birthday (in January) and I am constantly in awe of her. She has taught me that if you want something done, do it. If you sit and complain, nothing will get done.

Is there a guiding principle you work by, and what is it?

Be kind. On a busy emergency department shift, it is important to slow down and take the time with each patient to find out what is really going on. In the ED, I have the privilege of being invited into people’s lives when they are the most vulnerable. A normal day for me is often the worst day of a patient’s life. Keeping this in mind helps me to be empathetic and present.

Dr. Julie Doniere
A normal day for me is often the worst day of a patient’s life. Keeping this in mind helps me to be empathetic and present.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Self-doubt is your enemy. I wish I would have had the gumption to get my MPH (master’s of public health) sooner and try in a real way to effect change in our community. For too long I assumed I was not smart enough to be in the conversation about healthcare reform. I have come to the realization that we all need to get involved in what we are passionate about and nothing will change unless we take action.

What is your proudest moment?

There is a patient that the staff knows pretty well and is a “regular” in the emergency department. He was without a stable home and addicted to heroin. He would come in the ED often, especially on cold nights. He was extremely averse to talking about his health, and usually left soon after eating a sandwich and warming up. A few months ago, he presented with some back pain and a fever. He had an epidural abscess, a known complication of IV drug abuse. This is a life-threatening infection that needs emergency neurosurgery. He refused surgery and was going to leave the hospital. The need to use heroin during withdrawal is so strong that all he could think of was to get out of the hospital to use. Our recovery coach was able to talk to him, we talked about options for pain management, and he agreed to surgery.

A few months later I walked into a room to meet a patient that had cut themselves while doing dishes. He said, “You know me. You took care of me a few months ago.” It was the same patient. He was transformed. He was happy, proud, looking me in the eye. He had been successful in avoiding opiates since the surgery. He had reunited with his family and was living with them. He was even caring for his sisters’ kids while she went to work. I don’t think my feet touched the ground for the rest of the shift.

Jordyn Noennig covers Wisconsin culture and lifestyle. Follow her on Instagram @JordynTaylor_n. Find her on Twitter @JordynTNoennig. Call her at 262-446-6601 or email Jordyn.Noennig@jrn.com.

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