Eastern State Hospital care specialist finds deeper meaning in work with patients

Leanne Koppi is a personal services specialist who was recently hired at Eastern State Hospital.

There is seldom a head of hair that Leanne Koppi hasn’t cut since arriving as Eastern State Hospital’s personal services specialist that didn’t leave her thinking of her son, Tim.

As recently as six months ago, Tim, 33, was living on the streets of Spokane before contacting her and asking her to help him get into drug treatment.

Koppi sees similarities between some patients’ stories and the struggles her son has gone through himself.

“I can empathize because I see my son in a lot of (patients),” she said. “And it also helps me to understand my son a lot, too.”

Raised in Las Vegas, Koppi then moved to Bakersfield, California, where she lived for 33 years. She moved to Colville, Washington six-and-half-years ago, where she operates her own business, “Hair by Leanne.”

Koppi brought her son to the Inland Northwest two-and-a-half years ago after he went missing. Tim’s family, still in Bakersfield, eventually told her that they hadn’t seen him for an extended period. From Colville, she contacted Bakersfield Police Department — two hours north of Los Angeles — to report him as missing.

Koppi and Tim’s father were married for 20 years before they divorced, she said. Tim’s father works in the oil industry and she ran a successful salon. The idea of her son homeless is still incomprehensible to her.

“He and his sister were brought up financially well off,” Koppi said. “For him to live on the street blew my mind. I was like, ‘What?!’ I had to find him.’’

Koppi received a call from police informing her they had her son. But it wasn’t Bakersfield police; it was law enforcement in Las Vegas that contacted her. No one had any idea how he got there. She caught a plane to Las Vegas the following day.

Upon landing, Koppi got a rental car and met her son at a Target store. She says she’ll never forget the sight of his disheveled appearance.

“He was tweaking, paranoid, filthy — he didn’t even have a shirt. He had on dirty shoes and shorts,” she said. “I put him in the car and didn’t stop driving for 12 hours. I wanted to get as far out to the middle of nowhere, so he’d have nowhere to run.”

The road to his recovery didn’t start immediately once arriving in Colville though. At one point, Tim stole his mother’s car — which she’d just paid off — drove it to Seattle and trashed it there.

Despite that incident, the continuous verbal fights, his ongoing drug use, and his revolving-door lifestyle in-and-out of her home, Koppi says she saw improvement in him amid his fentanyl use.

“He would get better for a few months, and I could tell that he wanted to even though the addiction still had ahold of him,” she said.

He spent a year on the streets of Spokane, returned home, left for a couple of months, returned home, left again, but for just a week. When he asked her for help, she contacted a drug treatment center and he voluntarily checked himself in.

“That’s when I knew he was done,” she said. “If you see some type of hope, why would you give up?”

Just this week, Koppi located a home in Spokane. Tim has lived in an Oxford House in Spokane since leaving a drug treatment facility but will soon move in with his mother again. She’s excited to help provide the support he will need in effort to stay clean.

Koppi’s personal experience may make cutting hair at a psychiatric hospital seem easy.

She makes her way from ward to ward with her hair tools of the trade cutting the hair of patients Monday through Wednesday. She is accompanied by at least one Eastern State Hospital staff member for safety reasons.

On a recent morning, Dan Wagner, a mental health program specialist, accompanied her on a ward for patients who wanted a haircut.

“She’s an amazing lady with an amazing story,” Wagner said. “We are very fortunate to have her here.”

Koppi anticipated spending more time having to settle patients into the barber’s chair, but it hasn’t happened.

She said the hospital’s three-day, new employee orientation helped give her perspective on how to interact with patients. She wishes she had such information when Tim was younger.

Koppi parented him with a heavy hand when it came to his drug use, she said.

“Now, we’re best friends,” she said.

Koppi feels she’s been called to her current job at the hospital.

“I felt like when I saw the ad for this job, that God was telling me that this is what I need to do,” she said.

“ ‘I saved your son, so now go help other people.’ ’’

(By Kevin Blocker)