Opioid crisis takes toll on Grande Prairie frontline workers

As the death toll mounts, frontline workers in Grande Prairie, Alta., are feeling the strain of the opioid crisis.

'It's going to take a massive infusion of resources to catch up and not ruin an entire generation of helpers'

As the death toll mounts, frontline workers in Grande Prairie, Alta., are feeling the strain of the opioid crisis. 2:58

As he performed CPR on a 38-year-old woman, Jared Gossen said the numbness took over.

He knew she wouldn't survive the opioid overdose, but said he tried frantically to save her anyway.

"We were just biding time until the paramedics got there to take the next step and do some notification," Gossen said. "It was just too late."

I can remember what her face looked like as I helped her down to the floor and it was a distorted image, not what she usually looks like and her smiling self.- Jared Gossen , St. Lawrence Centre

Gossen is the founder of St. Lawrence Centre, a drop-in for homeless people in Grande Prairie. 

On Dec. 28, 2017, one of his long-time clients died of an overdose. 

Shanda, who Gossen asked to identify only by her first name to protect her family's privacy, was one of at least half a dozen of his clients to fatally overdose on opioids while at the centre last year.

"Some images I've just kind of shoved out of my mind," Gossen said.

"I can remember what her face looked like as I helped her down to the floor and it was a distorted image, not what she usually looks like and her smiling self.

"I've been in some crazy situations, even before the deaths, and they didn't quite affect me like this."

Up to 40 people a day use the St. Lawrence Centre in Grande Prairie for food, shelter and support. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Grande Prairie had the highest per-capita opioid overdose death rate in the province last year, according to data from Alberta Health.

"In a small city like Grande Prairie, it takes on a personal flair," Gossen said about the opioid crisis.

The rate of overdoses and deaths in the city is taking its toll, he said. 

"I've kind of stepped back emotionally from some of my family life because of what I've gone through," Gossen said.

"Sometimes at the end of the day, once you're shutting down, shutting off work mode a bit, you're just drained."

Jared Gossen founded the St. Lawrence Centre for homeless people in Grande Prairie in 2014. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Caregivers like Gossen are vulnerable to a condition called compassion fatigue, said Dr. Nick Mitchell, the province's medical director for addictions and mental health.

"There can be a tendency, particularly among people who are in helping professions, to extend themselves and overextend themselves," Mitchell said.

Compassion fatigue has mental and physical symptoms, such as loss of appetite, poor sleep and feeling emotionally exhausted and isolated.

"They start to take some of that fatigue on themselves," Mitchell said. 

"They have relationships with these people and as they see them coming in harmed or even dying from opioid overdoses, it takes a toll."

The province has pulled together mental health resources to help both victims and frontline workers during past crises, including the Fort McMurray wildfire.

We haven't paid as much attention to the care workers that are impacted by this.- Dr. Nick Mitchell, medical director for addictions and mental health.

The opioid crisis is proving more complex, Mitchell said.

"The challenge with the opioid crisis is ... it's across the province, it's not one community, everyone's being impacted," he said.

"A lot of our focus has been on the people who are using the opioids and the impact on them and their family members, and we haven't paid as much attention to the care workers that are impacted by this.

"But because it's so widespread, it's really hard to know where we would target a specific initiative." 

'A massive infusion of resources'

At the St. Lawrence Centre, staff are finding their own ways to cope with the opioid crisis, Gossen said.

Funerals for clients have become so common, the centre now keeps a go-bag — a "memorial service in a box," Gossen said, with vases and candles.

Last year, the centre created a budget line specifically for funerals and memorial services.

Gossen said he sees a mental health counsellor and encourages others to do the same. But as the death toll mounts, he said it's becoming harder to undo the emotional strain of his job.

"When it's happening in the moment, the numbness takes over," Gossen said. "In the quiet times, for me, it's still very alive."

He's calling for more resources and support for frontline workers, as well as education about compassion fatigue.

"I don't know how we're supposed to function at this point," Gossen said.

"It's going to take a massive infusion of resources to catch up and not ruin an entire generation of helpers."

@ZoeHTodd

About the Author

Zoe Todd

Video Journalist

Zoe Todd is a CBC video journalist based in Grande Prairie, Alta., filing videos and stories about the Peace region for web, radio and TV.