There isn’t too much to cheer about in the Downtown Eastside, ground zero for the opioid crisis, where so many doorways lead to various levels of poverty, pain, and addiction. The death toll rises every day.
The glass doorway at 223 Main Street, between Powell and Cordova, stands out from the rest. It opens into a brightly lit, neat and tidy medical clinic with distinct fuchsia-coloured countertops, dividers and doors.
On the walls are framed pieces of First Nations art. In the corner sits a plant with a sign that reads“please don’t steal me, I like it here!”
Welcome to the Pier Health Resource Centre, a different kind of pharmacy than this neighbourhood is used to. For one thing, it strives to place the person ahead of the addiction. Craig Plain is the pharmacy manager at Pier Health. He’s a tall, thin, bespectacled fellow with an easy smile and warm handshake. Last week, Craig Plain travelled to Quebec City to accept the award for Canadian Pharmacist of the Year.
“It’s a big recognition,” says Plain, when I visit him at his clinic, where he’s back to work just days following the gala. “I’m of mixed emotions about the award, because it’s really reflective of the entire staff at Pier Health. It’s a recognition for everyone here who works so hard. I also consider it a victory for the voices of the Downtown Eastside that so often go unheard.”
Plain knows many of those voices and faces of the Downtown Eastside. In addition to Pier Health seeing upwards of 150 patients daily, Craig Plain makes pharmaceutical house calls. Yes, house calls. The concept might not be as novel as you think, at least not in the Downtown Eastside.
“House calls never really went away in this neighbourhood,” explains Plain. “There’s so many people in vulnerable or immobile situations that plenty of doctors, social workers, and health care workers make house calls around here on a daily basis.”
Plain and his co-workers have a regular delivery route, on foot throughout the neighbourhood, seven days a week. Plain is often delivering methadone, suboxone (another type of prescription medication to treat opioid addiction) and naloxone overdose kits, which contains an antidote administered by a needle that temporarily reverses a fentanyl overdose.
“Everybody down here knows how to use the kits,” says Plain. “This is a tight community. People try to look out for one another. Just last week, I stepped into the alley right behind the clinic and there was someone overdosing. He was out. I jabbed the needle from the kit right into his pant leg and he responded very quickly, sitting up.” The ambulance arrived shortly after. A life was saved.
“One of my patients recently told me, while getting treatment, that it was the first time in 25 years that he didn’t feel like a criminal, and that’s a very important point in all of this: the crisis is not a criminal issue, it’s a health issue.”
When it comes to stemming that crisis, Plain says it’s all about regulated usage to minimize death. “It’s a very big issue, but it starts with getting the drugs off the street so people know what they’re getting.”
Despite pounding the beat in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country, Canada’s Pharmacist of the Year doesn’t feel the least bit burnt out. “We plan to continue taking patient care to the next level in this neighbourhood. I feel we’re just getting started.” Finally, something to cheer about in the Downtown Eastside.