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TELUS Social Impact
TELUS Social Impact
Heidi Morrison

Connecting Canadians

How compassion brought connection to a family facing opioids

Jan 24, 2020

Photo: Heidi Morrison says her volunteer work with the Sanguen Health Centre in Kitchener-Waterloo has taught her to see her daughter’s humanity first, rather than her drug use. NICK MENZIES PHOTOGRAPHY

Packing harm-reduction kits for people who use drugs on the cold winter streets of Kitchener-Waterloo wasn’t how Heidi Morrison planned to celebrate the birthday of one of her three daughters.

But, looking back to that moment four years ago, she can’t imagine a better gift for her family. After all, it was through her volunteer outreach work with the Sanguen Health Centre, and helping to deliver healthcare and vital connection to those in need in her community, that Heidi came to realize she’d been failing to show that same compassion to her eldest child, Brittany, whose own struggle with opioids began at age 15.

She now understands that substance use speaks to only one part of who her daughter is. Brittany is also darkly funny, resourceful, kind, humble, and even heroic. Her cool head and quick thinking under pressure have saved as many as 50 people who have overdosed, according to harm-reduction experts in the community.

Heidi credits that shift in thinking for keeping her family together.

“We learned from Sanguen and their harm-reduction model. I don’t know where our family would be, otherwise,” she says. “We are proud of our family at this point. We weren’t always proud, but now we very much are.”

Today, the Sanguen model of seeing clients’ humanity first, rather than their substance use, continues to change lives for the better in the Waterloo region. And, with support from the TELUS Heath for Good program, Sanguen is expanding its life-changing -- and life-saving -- services in 2020 to reach even more people in need, and connect them with the health services they need to survive, and thrive.

In Edmonton, the new mobile health clinic will administer immediate medical attention, such as wound care, to those on the street. It’s also a one-stop shop for clients in need of guidance through the social safety net -- a vital step in the effort to break the cycle of poverty. Photo by T Bolinski Photography.

In fact, Sanguen is one of seven organizations across Canada this year to launch a new mobile health clinic in partnership with TELUS. Already active in Montreal, Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, and Ottawa, each high-tech “clinic on wheels” is specifically designed to address an intense need for primary healthcare among scores of people who, because of mental illness, substance use, poverty and a host of other circumstances, face barriers to Canada’s medical system they can’t overcome on their own. Staffed with health professionals, including outreach workers, street nurses, counsellors and doctors, the mobile health clinics exist to break that cycle and ensure that help reaches all Canadians. 

With an estimated 235,000 Canadians homeless every year, and opioid use a public health emergency, the demand for this kind of service is only intensifying.

‘We’re journeying with you’

When it comes to outreach, every community’s needs vary, and that’s why each TELUS Health for Good partnership operates differently. In Edmonton, Cecilia Blasetti heads the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, where their newly arrived mobile health clinic works with existing shelters to establish trust among clients they serve. Their bricks-and-mortar health facility has always had extensive care options, including a medical lab and dental clinic, on site. But the mobile health clinic allows them to address what Blasetti calls “the deepening and more pervasive effect of homelessness,” where the homeless have fanned out from their historical spots downtown to the far corners of the city.

The mobile health clinic can now administer immediate medical attention, such as wound care, to more people in need. They’re also a one-stop shop for anything their community needs, including offering guidance through the social safety net via veteran social workers and healthcare providers who are known and trusted by those living on the street. That added element is a vital step in breaking the poverty cycle.

“If you’re treading water, you don’t think about what you’re going to do when you get to shore,” says Blasetti. “Our view is, we’re journeying with you. You’ve told us what you need help with, we’re going to support you in getting that help, so it’s a joint process.”

Back in Kitchener-Waterloo, Sanguen’s social support coordinator Pete McKechnie shares Blasetti’s emphasis on consistent connection and trust when it comes to providing ongoing care for a community on the edge. For the Sanguen team, their first priority is to ensure everyone they interact with feels valued and loved -- acknowledging they are someone who matters, not a diagnosis or a number or a burden.

The organization began its outreach program in 2015 with a mission to save lives. The original outreach program -- also supported by TELUS – operates three nights a week and records more than 400 visits weekly. The new mobile health clinic builds on that outreach, enabling a level of care that wasn’t previously possible, including prenatal care, counselling support, blood testing, and treatment support for infectious disease. The mobile health clinic is also equipped with the latest in TELUS Health technology, including access to electronic medical records and Wi-Fi network technology to assist onboard healthcare providers in delivering immediate and quality care. 

Not only is the need for this level of care critical for those on the streets, but it also reduces strain on emergency rooms, police, and paramedics.

“Better healthcare outcomes mean that person doesn’t need to go to the ER. It’s better for everyone,” says McKechnie.

Love, with no regrets

Sanguen’s mission has become a Morrison family project where each family member plays a different role. Heidi volunteers every way she can with both the van and the consumption treatment services site, which she recently decorated with the help of her husband Ron. Middle daughter Simone has turned her passion to help others into a career managing Sanguen’s mobile health clinic, while Grace and Brittany do whatever they can to assist as volunteers.

(From left) Pete McKechnie, Heidi Morrison and Simone Morrison. With the newly arrived mobile health clinic, powered by TELUS Health, outreach workers are gearing up to expand services throughout the Waterloo region, and connect more people in need with the healthcare they need to thrive. Photo by Nick Menzies Photography.

When not on shift, if Heidi spots the van in the community, she always drops by, especially on Thursdays, when she and Ron like to visit with those who are gathered around. They see it as more than a mobile health clinic, but as a community centre. Winter or summer, it’s there to provide a helping hand, words of encouragement, or a cup of hot chocolate.

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It’s through those personal interactions that Heidi and her family first came to understand how the “tough love” approach to Brittany’s drug use, and waiting for her “rock bottom,” had helped create a volatile relationship that constantly verged on violence.

Instead, they chose to embrace the Sanguen model, and change rippled through the family as they realized they could have healthy boundaries with Brittany, yet build a relationship too.

Heidi admits the unorthodox Morrison family project of embracing harm reduction is not for everyone, but it’s helped them through the darkest chapter in their lives. Today, they’re proud of Brittany for who she is, not who they wish she was, and nothing goes unsaid between them.

At the same time, they have no illusions about what Brittany’s drug use means – it’s Russian roulette daily, and one day it may end in tragedy. But it won’t end with regrets.

“My deepest fear was that if my daughter overdosed, that she would go out feeling unloved,” says Heidi. “Thanks to Sanguen, I don’t worry about that anymore.”

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