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Peer support for substance users at Chilliwack hospital a first in B.C.

‘Once you tell someone you’ve been there, it helps bring down the walls,’ says peer support worker
Kim Wood, member of the peer support pilot project at Chilliwack General Hospital. (Fraser Health)

A new pilot project at Chilliwack General Hospital is connecting peer support workers with people who use substances to get them the medical care they need.

Peer support worker Kim Wood, who has lived experience, joined the team in September.

“I was able to pull myself up with the support of others, and now I want to be that support person for other people,” Wood said.

The pilot project is the first of its kind in B.C.

“Now that word about us is getting out there, they come right up to the triage desk in hospital and ask for a peer support worker,” Wood said with pride.

The pilot was designed by Fraser Health to be a response to the overdose crisis from the inside of a hospital, addressing some of the harms from a toxic, illicit drug supply.

The peer workers, many of whom have worked in homeless shelters or on inner-city projects, help folks get one-on-one support, referral to services, or just a little company as they make calls about drug treatment centre openings.

Wood tends to use plain language, in part to help remove the stigma.

“I am and have always been an addict,” Wood said, purposely using the term. “I am clean now but I think we really need to not place so much negativity on the word itself.”

It helps that she can relate to those she serves.

“I feel I can be more compassionate. It’s not to excuse the behaviour but to understand it, and come at it that way.”

Once you tell someone you’ve been there, the walls come down.

“I love sharing my own story,” Wood said.

She knows she may not present as the typical person struggling with addiction issues.

But she has battled depression and anxiety since the age of 14. She survived an abusive domestic relationship, where she was subjected to physical, mental and emotional abuse, as well as family trauma, and substance use that led to active addiction at one point.

“Substances were the Band-Aid for me. It was survival.”

When caught up the cycle of drugs some people may desperately want to walk into the ER. They might have a wound, or skin infection like cellulitis from IV drug use, and wish to be seen by a medical professional. But some fear they won’t be treated with respect, or kindness and might delay care.

“Most of the people I serve live in survival mode every day. That’s the bridge. When someone sees you’ve been there too, it makes them feel accepted.”

They can also play a valuable role in defusing testy situations when things are teetering on the edge of violent escalation.

When a “code white” is called over the intercom, the peer workers come running.

The team is available seven days a week in the CGH ER and may expand to other Fraser Health hospitals in the future.

“We know people who use substances may be hesitant to come into emergency departments for fear they may be judged and not get the care they need,” says Janelle Tarnow, a clinical nurse educator with Fraser Health. “What we’re saying with this initiative is, you have an ally, someone who will advocate for you, meet you wherever you’re at, and help you get the care you need.”

Wood feels lucky in her personal life to have had a supportive elder family member in her corner.

“I am very lucky to have my grandma, who is a huge support system for me,” Wood said.

She gave Wood “non-judgemental support,” which allows her to now offer that beacon of hope to others as well.

When they started the pilot project, the peer workers conducted frequent perimeter walks around the hospital grounds in Chilliwack looking for those using substances who might need support.

“Now we are incredibly busy during the day,” she said. And it’s because folks are starting to seek them out.

“The reason they come in for peer support is really about the emotional support I can give. They don’t have to take the steps alone. It can be just the motivation they need.”

RELATED: Peer support workers tend to be more trusted

Jennifer Feinberg

About the Author: Jennifer Feinberg

I have been a Chilliwack Progress reporter for 20+ years, covering city hall, Indigenous, business, and climate change stories.
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