'No one gave up on me': Overdose calls personal for Vancouver paramedic
A first responder shares his own addiction story—and why nobody should fear reaching out, or calling 9-1-1, even though 'it takes a lot to finally ask for help.'
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It doesn't happen on most overdose emergency calls; there are too many.
But although paramedic Clive Derbyshire responds to at least "five or six" such ambulance dispatches every day in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, every so often he discloses that he, too, has struggled with drug addiction.
"I don't tell every patient I see down here that I'm an addict in recovery," he told Metro in an interview, "but every once in a while I am presented a patient who has overdosed, and I'm reminded that the power of hope is an incredible thing in the human psyche.
"I'd challenge anyone to look that patient in the eye and tell them that hope is not powerful — because the glimmer of hope it gives them in their eyes is very powerful."
The day before Thursday's National Overdose Awareness Day, the 38-year-old first responder invited Metro to tour his current base, the B.C. Ambulance Service station at Cordova and Heatley streets near the heart of the Downtown Eastside.
Derbyshire worked in emergency services since he was 18, when he became a volunteer firefighter. Five years later, he became an emergency medical responder with the B.C. Ambulance Service.
But during those years, he also wrestled with drug addictions that nearly killed him, he revealed — starting with alcohol, and gradually progressing to cocaine then crystal methamphetamine and ketamine. He even tried opioids, the kinds that are killing nearly four British Columbians a day.
And like many of the epidemic's victims, the roots of his addiction lay in mental health.
"I suffered a very traumatic experience at work about nine years ago," he recalled. "That day, that traumatic event fundamentally changed who I was as a person.
"I quickly shut down and became mentally isolated from my family and my friends … I had lots of guilt about the event I responded to, and shame for not being able to do more."
He's just one of many emergency responders across B.C. who have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and other operational mental injuries in the course of their duties.
After a year leave to enter treatment in 2015, with his employer's and union's support, he returned to find his paramedic peers in the throes of the worst overdose epidemic in decades.
"It's heartwrenching to see," he said. "In the last year since being back, I've been astounded and overwhelmed by the number of overdoses we've responded to.
"For me, it's very personal. At the same time, it helps me remember that regardless of the situation, this is a patient. I know the levels of compassion and empathy that the person needs."
According to his employer, B.C. Emergency Health Services — which oversees the province's ambulance service — "99 per cent" of overdose calls attended by paramedics since it began collecting data since 2016 "resulted in survival," a spokeswoman said in an email. But conversely, 85 per cent of overdose deaths never involved a 9-1-1 call.
"B.C. paramedics are dealing with an unprecedented number of overdose calls," explained BCEHS' spokeswoman Erin Garrity. "But this crisis is not one they can fight alone.
"The public has a role to play, too. It begins with awareness … Overdose can affect anyone."
One fear, Derbyshire admitted, is that calling 9-1-1 might end up getting the patient or their friends arrested for drug possession.
"Paramedics are trained to provide help in any medical emergency," he insisted. "We're not there to judge how that emergency started; we're there to help in a health crisis.
"Addiction is a declared public health crisis. There will be no repercussions; you can't be arrested for possession."
Garrity confirmed, "We don’t share your information with police," she wrote, "and a new federal law now protects you and the person overdosing from simple possession charges … You won't get in trouble for calling 9-1-1."
As for some members of the public questioning why repeatedly resuscitating overdose victims, just to see them use again, Derbyshire bristled.
"It saddens me to hear the disdain from people who think it's a choice instead of understanding it's a disease like any other — but a disease of the brain," he said. "These are human beings, every individual who suffers from the disease of addiction has a story — they did not start as an addict.
"Regardless of if they've overdosed once, 10 or 20 times, every human being deserves life, and I'll do what I can to provide that. If that means to keep resuscitating them, that's what it is. I will not give up on an addict — because I can personally say, without people who didn't give up on me, I wouldn't be here today. No one gave up on me."