Addicted health-care workers on rise, says retired nurse

A retired New Brunswick nurse believes a growing number of health-care professionals are struggling with drug addiction.

Jobs are stressful and employees have access to prescription narcotics

Retired RN Brenda Smith says she became addicted to the painkillers she was taking for arthritis. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

A retired New Brunswick nurse believes a growing number of health-care professionals are struggling with drug addiction. 

Brenda Smith of Saint John is speaking out about her own prescription drug addiction in the hopes her story will inspire others to seek treatment and counselling.

Smith, a registered nurse for 33 years, said the job was stressful, physically-demanding and involved shift work.

Nurses have access to prescription medication, including narcotics prescribed for their patients, she said.

Nursing was Smith's passion. But eight years ago, arthritis ravaged her hands and her doctor prescribed Endocet — a powerful narcotic containing the opiate-based oxycodone.

"My immediate thing was, I know this isn't a good move," said Smith, who was already a recovering alcoholic at the time. "But I don't have a choice ‘cause I can't stand the pain.

Nurses are supposed to be tough and strong and looking after everyone else.   Well, nurses are people before they're nurses.

"I needed pain relief, that’s what I needed so I could function ‘cause my life literally stopped."

At first, Smith was taking the pills as prescribed and they were enabling her to do her job. But she soon found herself in what she describes as a downward spiral into despair.

"I’m not quite sure where it turned, but there was a moment at home that I knew that I was starting to take too many and then it was fear because I couldn’t stop taking the meds because I needed them for pain, but I also knew that my addiction was kicking in and I was taking too many," she explained.

Smith decided to leave nursing three years ago as she struggled with a full-blown addiction.

She kept taking the pills for another 18 months before she checked herself into detox, followed by a stint at the Sophia Recovery Centre, which offers women a 12-step program based on Alcoholics Anonymous.

"I had made a promise that night when I was in detox, that if I got well, that I would put a face to addiction, because it's not the guys down on the street, you know, with the brown paper bag," she said.

"We’re surrounded by people that are dying in addiction, really. And especially women, because it's harder for them to get help. Society looks on them not the same as they do with men and it's even harder if you're a professional, or especially a nurse because nurses are supposed to be tough and strong and looking after everyone else.

"Well, nurses are people before they're nurses."

Story 'very common'

Janet Bordage, executive director of the Sophia Recovery Centre in Saint John, believes caregivers are especially vulnerable to addiction. (CBC)

Janet Bordage, executive director of the Sophia Recovery Centre, says she is seeing a growing demand for services – up to about 15 women a day, compared to three women just a few years ago.

Smith’s story is "very common," said Bordage.

She believes caregivers are especially vulnerable to addiction, which she describes as a spiritual illness.

"Addicted people have an overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness," said Bordage.

"We have this need for connection and communication with our world around us. And I think when you look at why people go into those healing professions, a lot of it would fill that need."

The Nurses Association of New Brunswick receives an average of three written complaints per year accusing nurses of substance misuse, said executive director Roxanne Tarjan.

"We recognize that that's not a full picture because other things are happening in the system and we have a responsibility to  be proactive as the professional association and the regulator with the public interests. And you know, I think we’ve done a good job on that," she said.

"The work is ongoing and the prevalence of prescription drug dependency or other substance misuse in society is a growing problem that impacts health professionals as well, including registered nurses and nurse practitioners."

Each complaint is reviewed by a committee of two nurses and a member of the public, with evidence presented by both sides, to determine whether a nurse's licence should be restricted or revoked for public safety reasons, said Tarjan.

If the complaint involves theft of medication or criminal activity, then it might go to the courts, she said.