Healthy Living in the North

Saving lives takes a village: International Overdose Awareness Day is August 31

Two women sit at a table.

Charlene Burmeister (right), President of the Coalition of Substance-abuse Users of the North (CSUN), and Northern Health’s Reanne Sanford (left). CSUN was the first drug-user group to form in the North. Charlene is a local and provincial pioneer in harm reduction advocacy. She’s also one of the familiar faces from the Stop Stigma campaign.

Three years have passed since a Provincial Public Health Emergency was declared because of the overdose rates in BC. When it was first announced in 2016, I had just begun my current role as regional nursing lead for Harm Reduction. In this job, I’m responsible for supporting harm reduction services for the North, and my first piece of work was the expansion of naloxone.

Before my Harm Reduction role, I worked as a generalist public health nurse for 13 years. I also worked as the local street nurse in Quesnel, supporting marginalized individuals to access health care. I had 12 or so regular clients on my case load who I met up with or supported for several years. Today, all of these individuals are now gone.

People who use drugs are community members

Most of my clients called Quesnel their hometown — they did not come from an outside community. They weren’t transported by bus to make space for the Olympics in Vancouver, as some rumors claimed. They had families, loved ones, and children they left behind — and they loved their community. Despite this, very few of them felt included or had a sense of belonging. Many of these individuals relied on public space to exist and connect with services in the downtown core.

Reflecting on progress and loss

As Overdose Awareness Day comes around again (on Saturday, August 31), I’m reminded of those we lost, but also how far we have come:

  • Naloxone is now a regular part of the work we do.
  • Northern Health has partners in the provincial response: pharmacists, community paramedics, housing, First Nations communities, and local non-profits.
  • We’ve increased our capacity to treat opioid-use disorder.
  • Staff helped create opportunities for people with lived experiences to participate in local discussions, including a campaign called Stop Stigma Save Lives (stigma is one of the main causes of accidental illicit drug overdose deaths).

All of these strategies save lives every day.

Bravery in the face of crisis

What humbles me most about the work in the past three years is the bravery that people who use drugs have had throughout this crisis — the level to which they’ve taken grief and built networks of safety for each other. When other systems have failed, peers have stepped into lifesaving roles, offering community education and peer advocacy. On Overdose Awareness Day, I want to take time to honour and acknowledge their work.

It’s time for a new conversation

Despite the advances, I still feel the daily challenge of defending and advocating for harm reduction. I want to use my voice to start a new conversation – one that begins with agreeing that people do not choose to die or deserve to die because they use drugs.

Communities have a vital role to play and can be a part of the solution. Here’s how:

  • Get trained on naloxone and carry a kit: drug use is common in many populations in our community. Make a naloxone kit part of caring for one another.
  • Choose compassion: instead of thinking “what’s wrong with that person?” think, “what has happened in that person’s life?” Become curious instead of judgemental.
  • See the value of programs that save lives: trust that services and harm-reduction strategies, like syringe distribution, are rooted in research and backed by evidence. People use drugs for a variety of reasons, including poverty, mental illness, a history of abuse, neglect, and childhood trauma – not because of the services they are offered and access.
  • Uncomfortable with public drug consumption? Support and advocate for a safe place where people can use drugs, where they can dispose of their paraphernalia safely with trained staff available to help them.
  • Support and donate to organizations in your community that offer access to housing, food, low-barrier employment opportunities, and support services.
  • Challenge statements that minimize or ostracize members of your community: forcing people to exist in the corners of our community, out of sight, increases drug use and people dying alone.
  • Advocate for changes in drug policy.
  • Offer creative solutions.

As a community member, you have the ability to support the health and well-being of our entire community. It’s a shared responsibility, and it’s time we all made it a priority.

About Reanne Sanford

Reanne is the Regional Nursing Lead for Harm Reduction, and is based in Quesnel.

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Bringing care to where the people are – nurse on Mobile Support Team brings care to Carrier Nations

Editor’s note: May 6-12 is Nursing Week! This story is one of several we’ll post this week to celebrate and showcase the many different types of nursing roles in Northern Health in honour of Nursing Week!

A sewing machine and handbag.

Jolene organizes community events as a way for people to disconnect from trauma, stress, or anxiety. The handbag making workshop was a big success!

“I know that I need to be flexible in my role. I need to be ready when the people are ready,” says Jolene Pagurut, a nurse on the Mobile Support Team in Quesnel.

Jolene travels to provide mental health and wellness support to three Southern Carrier Nations around Quesnel – Lhoosk’uz, Ndazko, and Lhtako. This Mobile Support Team is a partnership with Northern Health, First Nations Health Authority, and the three nations. The communities have renamed this Mobile Support Team to “Dakelh Wellness.” Dakelh is the Carrier word for Carrier.

“The best part of this position is the people from the communities I serve – being able to help people along their healing journey in a good way,” says Jolene. “The support of Northern Health, the community leaders, elders, and First Nations Health Authority makes it possible to use traditional and creative interventions to meet people where they are at and to help them reach their wellness goals. Really, so much of the success of this program is the partnership with NH and the community leaders.”

Right now, Jolene is the only team member, but works very closely with the team of health care professionals that provide primary and community care in Quesnel. A social worker will be joining Dakelh Wellness on May 15, and they’re looking for a counsellor for the team as well.

Jolene works to help people overcome the discrepancies in the social determinants of health, including things like low-income, housing, access to food, and other challenges with navigating the health care system. She supports individuals who live on and off reserve. Many of them are couch surfing or homeless and she’ll go to help them where they’re at – in their homes, on the riverbank, in a homeless shelter, or on the street.

A selection of baked goods.

Jolene has also gotten people together to make baked goods for the Elders.

This is Jolene’s third year in the role and she’s now better known in the community. She now knows where the people are. Jolene often receives messages from family members who will let her know they’re worried about a family member and tell her where they can find them. Jolene will go to them, wherever they may be at the time, and bring them a coffee or water and sit with them, listen, and help with setting goals with where they’re at. The next time she meets with them, she’ll help them move towards their bigger goals.

“My hope is that when I find them somewhere, I’ll leave them in a better place than when I found them. This often involves using harm reduction strategies and lowering barriers to receiving health care. For example, providing naloxone training and kits, or talking to someone who’s using IV heroin about smoking instead, or giving them new needles,” says Jolene. “The next time I meet them, they might be interested in hearing about the Suboxone program.”

The people that Jolene works with are overcoming so many challenges; many are homeless or live over two hours away from Quesnel. Some individuals have challenges with reading and writing, and Jolene is able to help them with filling out forms or better understanding medications. Jolene will also help by taking them to the pharmacy, or connecting with the pharmacist and making a plan to get the medication out to them in the community. They work to help their patients overcome the barriers in creative and meaningful ways.

“Filling a prescription when the person lives two hours away can be like a relay race – we get the prescription at the pharmacy in Quesnel and can get it on a medical van to one community and another community member can bring it to the final destination. We work hard and make it happen,” says Jolene.

Jolene also organizes community events as a way for people to disconnect from trauma, stress, or anxiety. She held a handbag making workshop last week. The intent was to train the elders to make the handbags and then they would teach the youth.

It turned out that some of the Elders were experts at sewing and were farther ahead than expected; they had to provide additional projects for them to work on. The youth also caught on very quickly and were soon helping the Elders. The event was a huge success, with people showing up at 8 am and staying until midnight. In the past, Jolene has also organized a food-dehydrating workshop and a canning workshop.

“It’s all about listening to what they want to do,” says Jolene.

Some of the other work Jolene does includes managing people with severe and persistent mental illness, working with the methadone doctor and doing Suboxone inductions, and referring individuals or families to treatment. She works with the team of health care professionals in the community and connects patients to the team for other services when needed, and will also attend doctor’s appointments with the patient. She strongly advocates for the patient. If she’s already in the community for a visit and something else comes up, like a dressing change on a wound or a baby check, she’ll use Skype or Telehealth and connect the family to a doctor right away.

“I’m working to help people increase their safety and support. I’m a safe person to talk to who can connect them to more people for physical, emotional, mental, spiritual support. I’m building on what’s already there with such resilient people,” says Jolene.

Bailee Denicola

About Bailee Denicola

Bailee is a communications advisor in the Primary Care Department and was born and raised in Prince George. She graduated from UNBC with an anthropology degree and loves exploring cultures and learning about people. When not at work, Bailee can be found hanging out with her dogs, building her house with her husband, or travelling the world.

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Supporting healthy community development at the NCLGA Convention

NH staff posing at their trade show booth at the NCLGA Conference.

L-R: Jeff Kormos, Healthy Settings Advisor; Dr. Sandra Allison, NH Chief Medical Health Officer; and Holly Hughes, Healthy Settings Advisor; at the NCLGA Conference trade show booth they co-hosted with Interior Health staff.

Northern Health (NH) and Interior Health (IH) joined forces this week to share information about healthy communities at this year’s North Central Local Government Association Convention in Williams Lake.

NH and IH co-hosted the pre-conference event, “Resilient & Healthy Communities,” the 4th annual Northern Healthy Communities Forum. The event is an opportunity for health authority staff to engage with elected officials from 100 Mile House and everything North.

“We are sharing resources for local governments to support them to develop healthy policies and address community health needs in their communities across the North,” said Holly Hughes, Healthy Settings Advisor. “Community needs vary with respect to health and we have brought contact information, tools, and resources to support local action.”

Dr. Allison on stage, next to her presentation on Opioids and our Communities.

Mayors and Councillors had the opportunity to hear Dr. Sandra Allison, NH Chief Medical Health Officer, talk about the opioid response in the North.

Jessica Quinn

About Jessica Quinn

Jessica Quinn is the regional manager of digital communications and public engagement for Northern Health, where she is actively involved in promoting the great work of NH staff to encourage healthy, well and active lifestyles. She manages NH's content channels, including social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc). When she's not working, Jessica stays active by exploring the beautiful outdoors around Prince George via kayak, hiking boots, or snowshoes, and she has recently completed her master's degree in professional communications from Royal Roads University, with a focus on the use of social media in health care. (NH Blog Admin)

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Looking at local data at the NCLGA Convention

Vash Ebbadi and Gillian Frost speaking in front of an audience.

Vash Ebbadi (NH) and Gillian Frost (IH) speaking to the NCLGA audience about the importance of local data in health care.

Vash Ebbadi (Northern Health) and Gillian Frost (Interior Health) presented to community leaders today at the 2019 North Central Local Government Association (NCLGA) Convention in Williams Lake on local health data and how information can inform local action.

“I was very happy to share some of my knowledge about data with the attendees today,” said Vash, regional manager of PPH Support Unit and an epidemiologist. “Epidemiology is all about analyzing health data in order to improve strategies around health care and prevent illness, so this was a great opportunity to talk about local-level health data and its importance in supporting community health, well-being, and resilience.”

Steve Raper

About Steve Raper

Steve is the Chief of External Relations and Communications for Northern Health, where he leads marketing, communications, web and media relations activities. He has a business diploma from the College of New Caledonia, a BA from the University of Northern BC and a master’s degree in business administration from Royal Roads University. In his spare time, Steve volunteers on a number of boards, including Canadian Blood Services, Pacific Sport Northern BC and the Prince George Youth Soccer Association. To stay active, he enjoys camping, and playing soccer and hockey.

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