Pioneering addiction centre celebrates sixtieth anniversary

The unveiling of the memorial plaque to Dr. Jaroslav Skála, photo: CTK

The addiction centre at Prague’s Apolinářská hospital – one of the first facilities of its kind in the world - celebrated its 60th anniversary on Wednesday. To mark the occasion, former patients and staff gathered to remember the centre’s humble beginnings, and the pioneer behind the clinic, Dr. Jaroslav Skála.

The unveiling of the memorial plaque to Dr. Jaroslav Skála,  photo: CTK
The addiction centre at Prague’s Apolinářská hospital was a totally new concept when it was opened back in 1948. Its charismatic founder, Dr. Jaroslav Skála, was amongst the first to believe that alcoholism should, and could only, be treated at its very roots, through psychotherapy, and not by focusing on the symptoms alone.

One of the late Doctor Skála’s colleagues was Arnoštka Mat’ova. She went on to become his wife. On the addiction centre’s 60th anniversary, she remembers the earliest days of the clinic:

“We had two rooms. But you know Skála had so much energy, and when he wanted something he really plugged away at it until he got it, and so gradually we inherited the first and then the second floor of this building. And Jaroslav didn’t hide the fact that, at that time coffee was hard to come by, and he would go to the director of the clinic with a kilo of coffee every so often, and we would get a new room. I suppose today you would call that a bribe.”

Dr. Skála retired in 1982, but kept working with the centre until his death last year. Jiří Žižala was one of his patients, who hasn’t touched alcohol now for the last 39 years. He remembers his time inside the facility:

“It was really strict. I was amazed when they said that patients nowadays can come and go as they please, we were never able to. We were under constant surveillance, there was a system of penalty points, and we couldn’t go home, nor receive visitors. But it is true that when you get to grips with all of this, and you overcome yourself, it gives you the strength to stay abstinent. This sort of regime really helped me.”

The centre has changed a lot over the years, but how? Sitting in the clinic’s garden, which has some of the best views of Prague, that’s what I asked current employee Dr. Jan Bečka:

“I think it has changed quite a lot, because when this facility opened, it was founded to treat patients addicted to alcohol mostly, and this was the biggest problem. And over the years, in the 1970s, the first patients addicted to drugs came, and this is the way in which our worked changed. And of course, our methods have changed over the years too; we now use new psychotherapeutic approaches and substitution treatment, such as methadone substitution and buprenorphine substitution.”

Over the years, the methods of treatment used at the centre have moved away from Dr. Skála’s grueling regime of sports, penalty points and isolation from the outside world. But the ideas central to the facility, and indeed to ‘rehab’ itself, have not altered so very much from those devised by Dr. Skála, sometimes referred to as ‘the father of detox’, some 60 years ago.