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Rob Shaw: ‘Outrageous,’ rampant drug use make St. Paul’s unsafe for staff, patients

The conditions in northern B.C. hospitals pale in comparison to what’s happening in Vancouver, a source says
Vancouver's St. Paul's Hospital has been bearing part of the burden of decriminalization | Dan Toulgoet

When health-care staff at St. Paul’s Hospital saw the recent uproar over a leaked memo outlining drug use and weapons inside northern B.C. hospitals, many couldn’t help but laugh. It represents only a fraction of the truly mind-boggling things they see daily inside their downtown Vancouver hospital.

Rampant drug use inside hospital rooms, open drug dealing on the wards and so many overdoses in a rooftop courtyard area that there’s now a tent to protect staff from the rain for when they have to resuscitate people numerous times a day.

“Absolutely there are people throughout that hospital who are dealing and using everywhere,” one nurse who works there told me.

“When we all saw that news thing about Northern Health we were laughing our asses off, saying they should take a walk down Burrard Street, walk through St. Paul’s.”

The B.C. government has insisted drug use and weapons aren’t allowed inside hospitals, contrary to the Northern Health memo to staff. However, the BC Nurses’ Union says it’s a daily reality for members, which has worsened since decriminalization began last January.

Increasingly, nurses are getting sick from having to walk through toxic plumes of fentanyl from all the drug smoking in rooms, bathrooms and hallways, said the union. Members have said when they complain, they are accused of not being supportive enough of harm reduction.

Perhaps nowhere is the situation worse than at St. Paul’s, which is ground zero for B.C.’s overdose crisis due to its proximity to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

“You can barely walk into some of the rooms, there’s needles and broken crack pipes and dirty food all over the floor,” the nurse told me. (I’m not revealing their name so that they don’t face repercussions for speaking out).

It’s so unsafe, housekeeping refuses to clean certain rooms.

Staff are instructed to give out “burner kits” with clean foil, matches and other paraphernalia to help people safely smoke drugs, said the nurse. Until recently, glass crack pipes were provided as well, said the nurse.

“We are handing out supplies and then we get mad at them for smoking in the hospital,” the nurse said. “We give them the equipment.”

BC United critic Elenore Sturko said the situation at St. Paul’s is unacceptable.

“The drug use there is so out of control, how are we expecting people to actually recover and get better and try to move ahead with some form of treatment and recovery when they are surrounded not only by drug use but also by predatory drug dealers?” she said.

“When we are creating a situation where a person who is at this very vulnerable stage is surrounded by drug use and drug dealing, we are putting a barrier to their recovery right in the hospital.”

More than 14,208 people have died in B.C. due to toxic drugs since the government declared a public health emergency in 2016.

Smoking drugs is now the most popular method for consumption, B.C. officials have said. Yet patients can’t smoke drugs in St. Paul’s fourth floor overdose prevention site. So they go outside to the rooftop garden patio of the Providence building, where drug dealers have taken up court to prey on the audience. Nothing is done to deter them.

“We know they are drug dealers, and yet they come and go,” said the nurse.

Meanwhile, overdoses on the rooftop happen at least daily.

“Our code teams go to resuscitate the same patients over and over again,” said the nurse. “Some of them are visitors, some of them are repeat patients. And [staff] are out there in the snow or pouring rain picking these people up trying to resuscitate them. Now there's been a tent erected.”

St. Paul’s is also the location of Premier David Eby’s new marquee Road to Recovery program, a first-of-its-kind “seamless” addictions treatment unit that the premier has said will eventually be expanded provincewide.

The program was only possible after a $20 million private donation. But Road to Recovery patients have to walk through an open drug scene just to get to the cafeteria or gift shop.

“We’re trying to help them recover, and then we surround them with the very thing they are trying to recover from—drug use and drug dealers,” said the nurse. “We are working against ourselves at a time when helping people has never been more important.”

The NDP government says the Road to Recovery program has been given special protections, including a requirement visitors leave their belongings at the nursing station, and that smoke breaks are accompanied by staff and occur in a separate area away from the troubled fourth-floor garden.

Those protections aren’t in place for everyone else in the hospital. There, staff aren’t even allowed to search patients’ belongings, nor are they allowed to seize any cocaine, meth, heroin or fentanyl they find, because decriminalization allows for personal possession of those drugs and so they are considered the personal property of patients.

The problems are compounded when someone who is actively using is placed inside a four-patient room with people recovering from other medical conditions, including the elderly. St. Paul’s is an old hospital with few private rooms.

“We have patients in four-bed rooms that have been exposed to patients fighting with their drug dealers in the room and having their personal effects stolen,” the nurse said.

That’s outrageous, said Sturko.

“Would I be comfortable sending my grandmother, who might have a broken hip, and have her lying beside someone who might be smoking crystal meth and have a weapon?” said Sturko. “Probably not.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix has said hospitals have hired additional security to deal with concerns.

But in St. Paul’s, that’s meant contracted “relation security officers,” who wear non-threatening khakis and powder blue shirts, and who aren’t equipped to restrain people having a drug-induced psychotic episode, said the nurse.

“Very well-intentioned, very nice people, but not who you want when you’ve got a six-foot, 250-pound, out of control drug affected person,” said the staffer.

The provincial government has to put some sort of limits on drug possession and use inside hospitals, followed up with actual enforcement, said the nurse.

“There are patients who are drug users themselves that are a little bit farther along in their recovery that beg us not to place them on certain wards … because they know what’s going to happen, they will relapse,” said the nurse.

“People don’t feel safe in the hospital at all.”

Rob Shaw has spent more than 16 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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