"Harm reduction," a new term to me, though not a new concept, is a controversial approach to social problems, in which illegal, immoral, or otherwise harmful behaviors are attacked, not at the root, but at the branches: distributing condoms to slow the spread of AIDS, needle exchange programs for drug addicts, and legalized prostitution, for example. It is palliative care: attempting to ameliorate the symptoms of an apparently incurable social disorder.
Whether you approve of the idea or think it only exacerbates the problem—like Needle Park in Zurich, one of Switzerland's early experiments, which succeeded in reducing AIDS infections and drug-related deaths, but attracted addicts and professional drug dealers from all over Europe—the following story is heartwarming. It brings to mind Mother Teresa, who, if she couldn't cure the ills of the lowest and the poorest in Calcutta, at least gave them the touch of a loving hand, and a clean, safe, comfortable place in which to die.
Meera Bai's story has a title shocking in itself: Why I Help Addicts Shoot Up. A nurse, she works at Vancouver's InSite: "a safe, health-focused place where people inject drugs and connect to health care services – from primary care to treat disease and infection, to addiction counselling and treatment."
InSite has been shown to be a successful public health initiative in more than 30 scientific research reports published in peer-reviewed medical journals. Such reports demonstrate that InSite users are more likely to seek long-term addiction treatment and to stay off the street, than users who choose to inject outside. The HIV rates in [Vancouver's Downtown Eastside] are on par with many African nations. Such blood-borne diseases are spread by sharing needles—something that is banned at InSite. And instead of using puddle water from urine-soaked alleys, participants are provided with sterile water, which reduces various kinds of horrific infection.
Clean supplies, safe rooms, friendly staff supervision during injection and compassionate nursing care help injection drug users to learn how to value their bodies, and thus themselves, even as our society generally tells them they are worse than useless. The choice to stop using drugs is a decision that many addicts cannot even imagine making, but InSite provides reachable steps toward a healthier life, offering participants a chance at redemption of both body and soul.
It's where I choose to work as a nurse—and as a Christian. Trying to follow the command of God to seek out and care for those in need of mercy has led me to find grace and pass it on among these people in the streets of the Downtown Eastside, the very definition of a marginalized population.
Something about seeing people at their lowest and most desperate, half-clothed from turning tricks for drugs while hating themselves for it, opens into a profound level of intimacy. I am blessed to enter the darkest place of people whose sins are far more public than those of the rest of us. Constant humiliation makes the people I work with especially vulnerable, and vulnerable in almost every way: to violence, to exploitation, to false hope and finally to despair. When allowed into these dark places, it is my privilege, and that of all InSite staff, to communicate worth and love instead of judgment and scorn.
The day nurse asks me to keep an eye out for a specific participant—a regular who comes in several times a day. She hadn't been seen yet. Later that night, the woman finally comes in, and she's beaming. "I went to see my daughter today! And I didn't use all day! F---, soon I'm gonna get off this s---!" We break out in applause and cheers, celebrating her triumphs with her—as she mixes her drugs to take in a few minutes in our facility. Other participants in the room are excited as well; two of them come over to hug her.
Another regular later chats with me in the treatment room as I dress his abscess, trying not to cringe away from the overwhelming odour he emanates. "It would have been my anniversary with my wife today, if she hadn't gone missing. We've both been down and out, but she took care of me out here. Now, I got nobody to talk to. This is the first human touch I've had today." I look up, startled. I am wearing gloves, holding my breath, cleaning his sores with a 10-inch sterile Q-tip. Even this, my deficient attempt to heal, is taken as love by a man desperate for human connection. I am ashamed.
I finish dressing the wound, clean up, remove my gloves and give him a hug. I hop up on the treatment bench next to him and we sit together and talk for another 15 minutes: about life, love and faith. He says goodbye, and then asks for a referral to an exit program. I give it to him. He knows the referral is merely one point along our journey together, and that I will listen to his story whether he goes to the program or not. As a Christian, I know that his life is part of God's real story of redemption. InSite is one of the few places where I get to hear it openly spoken, with trust, without judgment.
Well, it's beyond "fair use" to quote the whole article! I do recommend reading it all, though. (H/T John Stackhouse)