Bell Island’s Susan Boone didn’t know that her daughter, Nicole, was addicted to opioids until the hospital called to tell her that Nicole had overdosed on IV morphine. Thankfully, Nicole survived that overdose, but Susan has quickly learned that supporting someone through addiction is not straightforward, and there can be significant additional barriers for people living in a rural area.
“Eastern Health has a ton of resources, but when you live in a rural community, it’s harder to access them,” says Boone. “We have to head to the ferry terminal, hope we can actually get a spot on the boat—hope it’s running that day!—and then spend the day in town.”
This sort of travel can be very time-consuming and expensive, especially as people with addictions are not always in a good financial situation— sometimes Boone’s daughter was homeless, or living in a tent in the woods.
After Boone tried reaching out to various organizations in St. John’s, she quickly realized that the only way to get her daughter support was to do it herself. She was soon joined by the concerned mothers of other addicts on Bell Island, and by Brian Rees, a neighbor who had experience working with addicted youth on the streets of Vancouver.
Rees and Boone, along with a group of other concerned mothers from the area, went on to start a safe needle exchange program on Bell Island using supplies
that Rees acquired himself from SWAP, the Safe Works Access Program, in St. John’s. Initially, they were working out of someone’s home. There were plans to move into a building close to the hospital, but this fell through.
Then, a tragic situation led to what Boone calls a bittersweet miracle.
“A lady in Ontario, with roots in Bell Island, lost her son, who overdosed on opioids in 2017. She read that we were denied the space we were promised
originally for the needle exchange program, so she took her son’s insurance money, bought an RV, and donated it to us, explains Boone. “It was a regular
person—not the government, not a corporation— that finally allowed us to get going.”
“Education, housing, group counselling. We want to keep working and continue to give those struggling an entire supportive community.”
– Susan Boone, Bell Island Resident
The community-based RV program, called “In Good Hands,” is based on a harm-reduction model of care, providing safe, clean needles to drug users in a non-judgmental environment, thus providing time and support for users to get treatment. After just a few months of operation, the group saw tremendous success.
The RV clinic quickly gained the attention of media and policymakers—within a year of opening, Eastern Health announced plans to open an opioid treatment clinic in the Dr. Walter Templeman Health Care Centre. The new clinic is staffed by three physicians, mental health nurses, an addictions counsellor, a social worker, pharmacy personnel, a nurse practitioner, and specially-trained LPNs. Currently, over 25 individuals are receiving treatment, and the needle exchange program has seen a 90% decrease in the number of needles being exchanged—from 4000 a month to 300.
Now that the clinic is open, Boone hopes other services are not too far behind.
“We have the clinic now, which is fantastic,” says Boone. “But there is still so much to do. Education, housing, group counselling. We want to keep working and continue to give those struggling an entire supportive community.”