Why simple connections could make a big difference for drug users in the Interior - InfoNews

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Why simple connections could make a big difference for drug users in the Interior

Cherri Fitzsimmons is the former project manager of the Connections Program at Royal Inland Hospital, an initiative that has spread to hospitals across the Interior Health Authority.
August 31, 2018 - 8:00 PM

KAMLOOPS - When overdose patients are brought to emergency rooms across the Interior, they're treated by a doctor, maybe get a shot of naloxone, and could stay overnight — but the connection between the patient and Interior Health doesn't stop there.

Connection is an important word when it comes to trying to pull someone out of the depths of their addiction. The word is so significant that a new program at major hospitals in the Interior Health Authority is named after it.

Former project manager of the Connections Program at Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops, Cherri Fitzsimmons, was on a team of four members that made up the program. She's now taken on a new role within the health authority, but the registered social worker says the Connections Program has made a difference when trying to reach out to people with substance abuse issues.

"We want to make people feel more comfortable accessing these types of services," Fitzsimmons says. "Sometimes it's that discrimination or stigma that makes you want to not walk into that agency that’s there to support you, so we’re trying to find out ways to make people more comfortable to use the supports that are there."

The program launched in Kamloops in January 2017, and over the past year-and-a-half, it's made its way to hospitals in Vernon, Penticton and Kelowna.

When someone presents at an emergency room with an overdose or another substance-related issue, a Connections worker will likely be called in to speak with the patient about what their next step is. It's not as simple as referring them to mental health or housing agencies; instead recommendations are based on the patient's particular needs.

"If someone came to the hospital, to emergency because of some type of substance use medical impairment, I would meet with them and often connect them with appropriate services," she says. "Maybe it’s to make a phone call home, to get back home... We have the supports right there, let’s not leave you stuck here where you’re feeling isolated."

As Fitzsimmons explains, there are a range of "next steps" for someone facing substance abuse issues. She or another worker may offer help for filing income assistance, give them a ride or call a taxi to get them to where they need to be, drive them to the Greyhound station if their community is further away, or refer them to local support agencies.

But before any of that can happen, Fitzsimmons says a level of trust has to be built between Connections workers and their patients.

"Sometimes it's that earning of trust and treating people with respect and using appropriate language so people do not feel stigmatized," Fitzsimmons says. "If you feel that you can trust me, maybe you will engage with me and let me help you find what you need. The person may know what they need, they usually do... You just need someone beside you often because it’s stigmatized, and a brochure is good, but perhaps you would be uncomfortable making that phone call to someone you don't know, where, when I'm with you, we've already built that."

Fitzsimmons says numbers are sporadic for how many patients they can connect with during an average shift, adding that they often spend hours with certain patients to try and help them get to their next level of support.

At Royal Inland Hospital, the team is made up of two social workers and two nurses and Connections workers are available on shift between 7 a.m. to midnight seven days per week, leaving a small overnight gap. Fitzsimmons says during those hours a crisis response team is available to deal with anyone who comes in with substance issues.

Not every recommendation from a Connections worker has to be centred around mental health or substance abuse, Fitzsimmons says. It's often trying to figure out what led the person to use substances in the first place. The patient can be referred to someone like a grief counsellor or figuring out how to get their next prescription covered.

"Maybe it was grief, that connects to grief support. It doesn't always have to say "addictions" on it," Fitzsimmons says. "As we know, things come up in our lives and people try to numb the pain in different ways. Not always do they want to speak with me. They drive the bus; I'm just there. But I do really try hard to follow up even in a couple of hours — a text, a phone call."

Connections is an important piece of the puzzle for users who are too ashamed to admit they have an addiction issue, or the hidden drug user population which consists of men between 19 years old and 50 years old who aren't living on the streets. Being able to intervene and reach out to those people could help save a life, Fitzsimmons says.

"Addiction kills. You're in a hospital because of it. It takes everything from you. It will start with the people you love, it'll take your money, it'll take your home, it takes everything."

One of the biggest changes Fitzsimmons has seen since the program rolled out is less repeat visits at the hospital.

"It's a great place where we can intervene because perhaps they haven't reached out any other way," she says. "This is a unique place because they had to come to the hospital because of their substance use. Now we can support them."


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