British Columbia

Continued empathy important in battling overdose crisis says DTES frontline worker

With the volume of reporting on the overdose crisis — and fentanyl's role in it — some people may find it's easier to tune out the details as the number of lives claimed rises.

'Healthcare workers as well as the community are showing signs of exhaustion,' says Dr. Alana Hirsh

Vancouver firefighters Jason Lynch and Jay Jakubec try to revive an addict who has already had two doses of Narcan after overdosing on fentanyl in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. (CBC)

With the volume of reporting on the overdose crisis — and fentanyl's role in it — some may find it's almost easier to tune out the details as the number of lives claimed rises.

But Dr. Alana Hirsh, a family physician with expertise in addictions, says that now more than ever, empathy is needed when people think about the ongoing emergency on the Downtown Eastside.

"It's been a bit of a horror show, most people know someone who has died, healthcare workers as well as the community are showing signs of exhaustion," said Hirsh.

More than 755 people have died of overdoses in B.C. this year and last month alone, 128 people died from illicit drug use.

Hirsh says governments and health authorities have stepped up with increased services to aid overworked first responders.

"Anytime you have a crisis like this we also have the opportunity to see the most amazing side of people come out."

Public dollars to pay for care

This crisis has resulted in raised property taxes for some to pay for over-dose related services and supervised injection sites are opening up in Kelowna, Kamloops and Victoria.

Some residents have asked why they should have to pay to take care of people struggling with drug addiction.

"What I'd like to say to those people is, to think of addiction as a habit or a choice, it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the very nature of addiction.

"They're not people who are using drugs for fun, in fact they're having anything but fun. Most of them are suffering immense medical consequences from their drug use, they're often ending up in hospital, they're having near death experiences, and yet they can't stop using," she said.

The majority of Hirsh's patients first turned to drugs as a form of self medicating. Opiates like heroin, fentanyl and morphine, she explains, began as a way to treat physical and emotional traumas suffered earlier in life.

Withdrawal symptoms 'worse than death'

As dependency and tolerance to these drugs build over time it becomes even harder for addicts to stop using, and patients have described withdrawal to Hirsh as "a feeling worse than death."

"It's extremely hard for them to stop using when the solution is often a quick fix away and the reality they're facing is often homelessness or living in SRO hotels, it's disastrous."

Hirsh says that through her job she has seen amazing transformations by approaching the issue with compassion, acknowledging the root of the problem as a medical illness and treating it with evidence-based treatments such as Suboxone and methadone.

"I have hope because I know that we can help these people with the right health initiatives, and with the right government policies, I think there's a lot of hope for people with drug dependence."

With files from the CBC's On The Coast.


To hear the full interview listen to audio labelled Continued empathy important in battling overdose crisis says DTES frontline worker.

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