Erin Gibson was standing in the middle of The Lookout Society’s courtyard about to deliver emergency overdose training when she heard someone shouting for help: “Overdose!”
It was Saturday, July 16 and the regional harm reduction coordinator was out on the street in Surrey trying to get safe drug supplies and naloxone overdose treatment medication to people who needed them. A batch of street drugs was sending dozens of people to hospital and Erin, alerted by phone on her day off, had rushed in to assist. Now, she was running to save a life.
She and Lookout coordinator Linda Fox raced to the parking lot behind the liquor store near 135A Street and 108 Avenue and found a man who had been smoking crack cocaine not breathing and being worked on by a Lookout staff member and clients.
“He’d just dropped,” Erin recalled. “His chest wasn’t moving so I started giving him CPR. Linda called 911 and then gave him a dose of naloxone, waiting the required four minutes then giving him a second one, and then a few minutes later the fire department arrived and then the ambulance. But to this day, I don’t know if he survived.”
Before the day was through, at least 20 people were treated for drug overdoses at Surrey Memorial Hospital’s Emergency Department. In total, 43 people were treated for overdose during that weekend’s crisis – a 170 per cent increase over the hospital’s usual four cases per day. The cause was a batch of drugs tainted with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more toxic than morphine which has increasingly been found in the illicit drug supply in B.C. since 2012, prompting the declaration of a public health emergency in April.
“People on the street were really afraid,” Erin recalled of her conversations earlier that morning. “They said, ‘If people really cared about us they would come down here and hand out naloxone.’” So she did.
After helping the man who overdosed, Erin went back to Lookout to empower others to do the same. During the training, she said, you could hear a pin drop. That weekend, she helped train more than 50 community members, handed out just as many naloxone kits, and with help from Surrey RCMP and community partners plastered the area with warning posters. Fraser Health employees and volunteers also mobilized for outreach, while leaders launched a public awareness campaign to get the word out. Police cruised the streets broadcasting warnings from their cars. Still, the overdoses continued.
On Sunday, Erin met with Fraser Health ACT (Assertive Community Teams) members and held an impromptu overdose intervention training session with people lining up outside the Surrey Urban Mission for dinner. They had barely finished when again they heard shouts for help. Erin and ACT team members Lee-Anne Foster and Paddy Seppenwoolde sprinted across King George Boulevard traffic to reach a man who had fallen from his bicycle and collapsed on the road from an overdose. When they got there, two of the men she had just trained at the Mission were leaning over the victim, trying to get him breathing again. This time, Erin administered the naloxone and by the time the ambulance arrived, he was breathing again.
“I thought I might need to know how to do this one day,” one of the grateful new trainees told her, “but I didn’t think I’d need to do it so soon.”
Empowering clients like this is core to Erin’s philosophy of harm reduction, said Sherry Baidwan, manager of clinical operations for communicable disease control.
“For Erin, this is a calling, it’s not a job. She truly cares about the community and the people at risk. You really see that in the work she does and the heart she puts into it,” Sherry explained. “Erin really went above and beyond. She was out there talking to people on the street evenings and weekends to help keep them safe. She really stepped into a leadership role, working to ensure more lives weren’t lost.”
Yet Erin is modest about her own contribution, and stresses the community-building aspect of her work.
“Being able to be shoulder to shoulder with the community was a real honour,” she shared. “It’s not only about saving a life, but about being able to bring tools to empower people who have been saving each others’ lives and living in marginalization and exclusion from society. These people are really capable. I see them saving each other. By supporting them, we are sending a message that we care about you and we don’t want you to die.”
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