Guided by an inner conviction greater than herself, Cheryle McCann poured her heart and soul into a career spanning five decades as a registered nurse, with the last 15 of those years serving those with substance use disorders at Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse.
McCann, an ordained Presbyterian minister, retired in May, but not before sowing seeds of compassion and care to hundreds of people caught in the anguish of addiction.
“When working with the patients, I figured it was all ministry,” she said. “The 12 steps (to recovery) talks about the spiritual aspect – not religion – along with the emotional and physical. That’s how I looked at it.”
Her kind-hearted manner was not lost on her coworkers.
“It was truly a pleasure to work along side of Cheryle over the years and I know that she is and will be missed by staff and patients, said Shannon Murphy, director of outpatient treatment services. “She is quite the force to be reckoned with -- small but mighty and incredibly spiritual with a wonderful sense of humor.”
Dr. Bruce Baker, medical consultant at GCASA, said McCann’s contributions were invaluable.
“When I was asked to be the employee physician at St. Jerome Hospital, I accepted it without a clue as to what I was supposed to do but, no problem, with Cheryl's guidance I muddled through,” he said. “When St. Jerome opened the inpatient substance abuse (program), I was asked to replace the original medical director who had reassigned after the unit 's first year. Once again, Cheryl was there to mentor me. And when I was asked to come on board at GCASA there was no hesitation, I knew Cheryl was there to mentor me.”
Baker said he learned many lessons from his relationship with McCann, with a team approach at the top of the list.
“What was the most important part of our relationship?” he asked, rhetorically. “I had learned very early in my life the importance of teamwork in any endeavor. Cheryl helped me hone that concept.”
An Attica native, McCann arrived at GCASA in 2005, working out of the Genesee County Department of Social Services doing intakes and health assessments there and also at the clinic on East Main Street.
She later worked in medication-assisted treatment with Dr. Charles King in both the Batavia and Albion clinics, and was GCASA’s opioid treatment coordinator for several years.
“That’s where I would triage people and explain to them what the suboxone program was all about, providing counseling and informing them of the guidelines,” she said. “When New York State instituted a health care coordinator, I did that job and continued with that until last fall. But, no matter what role I was in, the happiness at GCASA remained.”
While employed at GCASA, McCann also worked at St. Jerome Hospital in several capacities over a 36-year career there, including pediatrics, intensive care, emergency room, infection control and in-patient chemical dependency, and performed pastoral work at four churches.
She was pastor of the Holley Presbyterian Church from 2000-2006, and still is an ordained minister.
“For about 20 years, I worked two or three part-time jobs, often working seven days a week,” said McCann, who resides in Stafford with her husband, Ronald. “This allowed me to serve churches that could not afford a full-time minister, and allowed me to continue working in nursing and counseling capacities while doing church ministry.”
McCann worked up to four days a week at GCASA in both in-patient and out-patient treatment.
“I certainly have worked with every drug of choice,” she said. “The one thing that I always thought with the patients who sought care for opiate treatment was ‘your biggest hurdle was crossed; you didn’t have to convince them that they had a problem.’ They came to you saying, 'I have a problem.’ I really felt that a large percentage of people were there because they really wanted the help."
She helped with insurance piece, and, worked with Dr. Matthew Fernaays, GCASA medical director, and nursing colleague Barb Worthington to administer vivitrol and suboxone to her patients. She said that most of them were “people who basically were pretty stable – getting stable in their recovery – and we’re starting to make headway.”
She did, however, acknowledge the distressing side of addiction.
“It’s always very painful. In those particular settings there is a lot of death and suffering,” she said. “It’s very difficult to watch that … you lose people to the disease, and that is true with alcohol as well.”
McCann had high praise for Murphy, her supervisor, as well as her coworkers and GCASA, in general.
“Shannon, well I just love her,” she said. “We worked together for a long time and she is wonderful. I can honestly say it was always a pleasure to work in this environment. GCASA is a wonderful organization.”
She said patients at GCASA “are treated with respect and dignity, and the staff is professional and work together as a team.”
“You didn’t have back-biting and you didn’t have gossiping about one another that you may see in other places at times. It was a really positive environment – and all of that starts right at the top. The senior leadership sets the tone for the expectation and how people are to be treated,” she offered.
McCann’s nursing career began in 1973 as a part-time supervisor in the obstetrics unit at Children’s Hospital in Buffalo. She was there for four years and then moved to Iowa, working two years in the labor and delivery units at the University of Iowa hospitals and clinics before returning to this area.
She holds an associate degree in Nursing from Trocaire College, a bachelor’s degree in Nursing from Brockport State College and a master’s of Divinity from Colgate Rochester Divinity School.
McCann said she realized it was time to call it a day when COVID-19 hit, and the work schedule of her daughter, Amanda Whitbeck, an employee of Finger Lakes Community College, was disrupted.
“Amanda needed help with child care and with the COVID, we weren’t sure if the college would be open,” she said. “So, when she did have to report, I could watch her two children.”
The McCanns have two other grown daughters – Rachel Obrokta, of Williamsville, and Kristen Maskell, of Manassas, Va. -- and five grandchildren, ranging from 14 months to 10 years old.
As she nears her 70th birthday, McCann said she won’t have any problems remaining active. Her hobbies include needlework, tai chi, reading, gardening, cooking, travel and language study, and, of course, spending time with the family.
“I’ve studied Spanish, French and Italian, depending on where we are planning to travel next,” she said. “I gave up on Dutch.”
DISCLOSURE: Story written by Mike Pettinella, GCASA publicist.