Dec. 2, 2019

'We can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. It might not be someone in your household, but it might be someone across the street'

Heather Lean, Student Medical Response member and paramedic, shares her view on the stigma related to opioids
Pills to illustrate opioid story Flickr photo by Kaushik Narasimhan, licensed under Creative Commons

For longtime Calgary paramedic and current anthropology student Heather Lean, opioid use is a complex issue and has been for a long time. “I have seen overdoses in stereotypical back alleys, and in very nice houses. Addiction doesn’t discriminate, it really doesn’t,” she says.

Lean has a background in caring for people, working for 12 years in Emergency Medical Services (EMS) in Calgary and the surrounding area. She decided to go back to school to find a different way to help people and, after seeing an ambulance on campus in her first few weeks, she thought she should volunteer with the Student Medical Response (SMR) team to help out.

The SMR team is a student volunteer group that provides qualified and skilled pre-hospital care to some UCalgary events. Working in collaboration with Student Wellness Services and Campus Security, SMR volunteers are motivated, professional and skilled students with backgrounds as first responders, paramedics, firefighters, lifeguards, nursing students, and medical students.

Lean is currently the executive director of training for the SMR team and in addition to working as an advanced care paramedic, has also worked in harm reduction at a community support site.

“Working as a medic on the street, you don’t get to know people and you can get jaded. Changing roles from a pre-hospital focus to a harm reduction focus, the more I heard people’s stories, traumas and events that led them down a path and I realized it could be as simple as trying a drug for the first time, or using it as a crutch to deal with things you’re not ready to process,” she says.

It could have been easy for it to happen to me, or anyone that I know. It put a human element on it.

Opioids include a variety of things, like prescription medications (codeine, oxycodone, morphine and fentanyl) and non-prescription drugs (fentanyl, carfentanil, heroin, and others). They are prescribed to manage pain, but are also used illicitly. Opioids can be found as contaminants in other illicit substances, increasing risk of accidental overdose.

The SMR team is trained in responding to overdose situations and carries naloxone to respond to an opioid overdose. Naloxone is an injectable medication that reverses the effects for 30 to 60 minutes, allowing a person to breathe normally and regain consciousness while help is on the way.

“So many drugs get mixed with bad things I have had clients that thought they were smoking a joint and they end up on the floor, overdosed, because it was laced with something,” she says.

“As a medic, you can get frustrated and tired seeing multiple overdoses a night, because it can feel like it’s taking resources off the street. But the problem is a bigger systemic problem that we need to address as a society.

“We can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. It might not be someone in your household, but it might be someone across the street.”

Anyone on campus can get naloxone training through a registered nurse in either Staff Wellness or Student Wellness Services.

If you are using opioids, there are ways to reduce your risk of overdose — no shame, no judgment. Taking the dose recommended by your doctor is the safest way to use opioids. If you or someone you know uses opioids, keep a naloxone kit handy. Find more information about opioids.