Mobile team helps Calgary's homeless die with dignity

Part of Rachael Edwards' job is to manage pain and help patients navigate the health-care system. But there is more to it than that.

CAMPP team provides end-of-life care to people who might otherwise slip through the cracks

Registered nurse Rachael Edwards is part of a mobile team delivering end of life care to some of Calgary's most vulnerable people. (CBC)

A mobile team is delivering end-of-life care to some of Calgary's most vulnerable people.

The Calgary Allied Mobile Palliative Program, or CAMPP team, began helping homeless patients suffering from terminal illnesses in October.

"I will go to the Drop-In Centre, I will go to Alpha House. I will go under the bridge," said registered nurse Rachael Edwards, who is one member of the two-person team.

Her office is a simple suitcase on wheels. Inside you'll find a laptop, blood pressure cuff, a stethoscope and very likely home-made muffins. The fresh baking is a way to break down barriers in a job where trust is crucial.

"[We] build relationships with people in the community so that they can die where they want to die, essentially. In comfort," she said.

Hospitals ill-equipped to deal with homelessness

Part of her job is to manage pain and help patients navigate the health-care system. But there is more to it than that.

"We allow them to have a voice in what that end of life looks like for them," she said. "So if that means supporting them in a shelter or on the street or in their apartment, as long as we can, then that's what we want to do."

Rachael Edwards and Dr. Simon Colgan head to a Calgary homeless shelter to provide end of life care. (Rachael Edwards)

Without the team, Edwards says many patients would end up in hospitals, which aren't always equipped to deal with the complexities of homelessness.

"Unfortunately they don't always get the best care in hospital, not because of the hospital staff, but because of their addictions and behaviours and things like that," she said.

Program aims to provide dignity

"It's about dignity. It's about the way we treat people at the end of life. If we say that palliative care is for all Canadians then it has to be for all Canadians," said Dr. Simon Colgan, a Calgary physician who started CAMPP.

In his work as a palliative care doctor, Colgan saw homeless people slipping through the cracks after being released from hospital.

 "It was very clear to me that we had to do things differently," said Colgan, who modelled the team after a program in Toronto.

Dr. Simon Colgan and Rachael Edwards, registered nurse, visit Calgary's shelters to palliative care to homeless people who might otherwise struggle to find help (Rachael Edwards)

Since CAMPP began in October 2016, it has helped roughly 30 people who are homeless or at risk of becoming so.

There are no demands that patients stop using drugs or alcohol in order to be accepted.

"I wanted to make sure that things like addiction and lifestyle didn't preclude people from the best quality of end of life that we could offer," said Colgan.

Uncertain future

But the future of CAMPP is uncertain. An anonymous donation, which was used to get the program off the ground, runs out in March.

Colgan is now looking for new funding and hoping the relationships he's built with some of Calgary's most isolated and vulnerable are not lost. They've also set up a donation page.

"I think people have been judged for too long. And there's too much stigma around homelessness and addiction," he said. "And I wanted to show we could do it differently."