A Day in the Life of a Harm Reduction Worker

In harm reduction, mornings start with a bang! At this moment, I am sitting in my office. I work in the hepatitis C field, but I also work as a harm reduction worker. I can hear the fan humming, footsteps down the hall, and suddenly, yelling. I walked out to investigate what was going on and found that my office neighbor was the source of this explosive sound. I knock on the door, lightly, as to not further aggravate my peer.

He answers and greets me with a saddened expression. I timidly enquire if he is okay, what can I do to help? He tells me he is sick, dope sick. And that the last ‘stuff he had’ caused his arm to swell. I look down and notice the burgeoning abscess on his right arm. I shudder as I imagine how uncomfortable he must be. He asks me if I can help him see a doctor, he needs relief. I happily oblige since I too was in that position years ago.

Within the hour, I was able to help him access opiate agonist treatment to curb the sickness. When I ran into him later that day, he was a different man. The type of sickness that comes with taking opiates for an extended period of time is unlike any flu a non-user would experience. With influenza, there is not an instant remedy. With dope-sickness, there is. Knowing you could feel better instantly with just a little bit of powdery material is one of the reasons that many do not make it past the multiple weeks of being unwell.

Pandemics and drug use don't mix

In the time of a global pandemic, the world of drug users has been shaken up and has become progressively more deadly. News agencies and social media have reported that overdose fatalities are higher than during the height of the opioid crisis. But amongst us drug users, past and present, we know the crisis had never ended.

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Drug users, like the gentleman that resides in the unit beside my office, are at a higher risk now than ever before. Border closings and disruptions of traditional trade routes have halted international drug trafficking to almost a standstill. This has resulted in poor quality, dangerous substances hitting the streets at highly inflated costs. When your only income is from government assistance, your budget is already strained, now even more so. My coworkers have been attending to incredible numbers of overdoses in the past few weeks. I can see the burnout in their eyes and on their exhausted faces.

The future of harm reduction

Looking at my community today, I have seen increased violence, psychiatric events, and impoverished persons pushed down deeper into the depths of poverty. Toxic drug supplies available are killing people en masse in British Columbia. With many communities, especially remote ones, not having access to safe injection sites, harm reduction supplies, and inadequate safe supply alternatives, I worry we are sending a highly vulnerable community to its death.

Many people in my province have seen what I have seen and have committed to increasing drug user health and quality of life. There have been great movements, but great failures and it is at the cost of real human lives. These people are not just ‘druggies.’ They are sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, friends and are loved. This is what gives me the drive to continue in this work. I think about my family, my friends who have died from toxic drug supply, and my enthusiasm grow tenfold. It will take time to get to a place like Norway, but I believe with enough voices raised in protest we will get there. One day at a time.

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