When BCNU member Reanne Sanford is looking for inspiration in her job as Northern Health’s regional nursing lead for harm reduction and sexual health, she thinks of clients who have lost their lives in the opioid crisis.
1,422Deaths from drug overdoses in 2017
“As nurses, taking care of people is part of our ethics, and part of the fabric of who we are. I really love that more nurses are starting to say, ‘This isn’t okay. This is unacceptable.’”
“Most nurses that work directly with this population can say that they’ve lost some really amazing people — It’s been a challenge, and sad and overwhelming at times,” Sanford says. “Doing this type of work helps you feel like you’re not letting them die in vain, that you’re going to keep the conversation alive.”
Sanford, who previously worked as a street nurse in Quesnel, officially stepped into the newly created Northern Health position in April 2016. Just weeks later, the provincial government declared the opioid overdose epidemic a public health emergency.
“Engagement with peers is something we’re really trying to work hard on in the north, because we know that so much of the services we try to deliver really depend on accessing people. What I’ve found to be absolutely paramount in determining the needs of people that are essentially dying in our community is gaining trust and developing relationships.”
Sanford quickly learned there were several major challenges when working to address the opioid crisis in the north. To start, her region is huge: everything north of Quesnel belongs to the Northern Health authority, right up to the Yukon border and across to Alberta. Further, strategies that work well in urban settings like Vancouver are often unsuccessful in rural areas.
“It’s harder to engage folks in rural settings where there’s still a lot of stigma that exists,” Sanford says. “They’re not really the same kind of street population you see in cities, they’re very hidden.”
Spurred on by the growing number of deaths — more than 1,400 people died of opioid overdoses in BC in 2017 — Sanford dove into her new role, determined to see positive change. She began collaborating with health leaders across the different northern communities to develop policies, and working with regional public health teams to roll out naloxone programs and take-home training.
“Engagement with peers is something we’re really trying to work hard on in the north, because we know that so much of the services we try to deliver really depend on accessing people,” Sanford explains. “What I’ve found to be absolutely paramount in determining the needs of people that are essentially dying in our community is gaining trust and developing relationships.”
Helping teams stay resilient in the face of overdose deaths and compassion fatigue has also been important. Working on the frontline of the crisis can be traumatizing, but BCNU nurses have been going above and beyond to help the people who need it the most.
“Nurses’ strong voices are going to be really important moving forward as we continue to advocate,” says Sanford.