At the same time Premier John Horgan was announcing $30 million in funding for B.C.’s overdose crisis on a rainy Friday morning, Erin Gibson was standing on Surrey’s infamous 135A Street “Strip.”
Gibson, who has been a fixture along the stretch of road, has just received the Fraser Health Hero Award for her work on the frontline of the fentanyl epidemic, which killed 876 people so far this year.
The award recognizes “heroes at all levels that deliver exceptional patient care, and then push themselves – and Fraser Health – another step further.”
Gibson serves as a harm reduction co-ordinator for the health authority and was honoured for her work mobilizing services and support for marginalized people who used substances, including those on 135A Street.
“Harm reduction has been called a radical form of love,” Gibson told the Now-Leader, “and we could all use more of that.”
The health authority said the Surrey resident has rallied support for groundbreaking interventions such as Surrey’s SafePoint supervised consumption site.
Gibson has even spent her weekends on the frontline, spreading awareness about naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.
Fraser Health says Gibson has taught more than 1,000 of its employees how to recognize and respond to overdoses, has attended countless public education forums, and attends municipal meetings on her own time as an advocate for people at risk of overdose.
Gibson herself has reversed seven overdoses.
“I come from doing a lot of direct service or point of care work but with Fraser Health my job is more co-ordinating, a development role,” she said.
“I think that there’s been times when this crisis has really called all of us to work outside of what our normal scope is. It calls on us to do things differently. When I have been down here, it’s because there’s been an emergent crisis.”
But if you ask Gibson, she’ll tell you she’s just one of so many people who are stepping up amidst the crisis, from RCMP to firefighters to outreach workers and even addicts themselves.
“They’re at the forefront,” she said. “This really is all of us doing all the things we can. And looking at how we can be part of the solution.”
And though Gibson has been with Fraser Health since 2012, her work in fighting overdoses goes back farther than that.
Prior to 2012, she was part of the team at the BC Centre for Disease Control that developed the Take Home Naloxone Program, which now has more than 550 participating sites across the province (kit pictured below).
“I was hired as a co-ordinator to help develop the program,” Gibson explained. “It’s been really amazing to see that program started when we weren’t seeing this level or overdoses. I’m really thankful. In 2011, (overdose numbers were) high, it went down a little bit in 2012, then it just went way up.
“When I first started this work, people would be dying from HIV. The odd person would die of an overdose, but it was often people would be really, really sick,” she continued. “(Overdoses) are one of the most predictable and manageable medical emergencies to handle. If they’re not breathing, you breathe for them. You do CPR, you administer naloxone, you call 911. That’s why there’s never been a death at a supervised consumption site because it’s manageable. How we approach substance use, we criminalize individuals, the shame, it means people die in isolation and don’t want to call for help. We need to understand substance use.”
Manager of Fraser Health’s Harm Reduction Programs Sherry Baidwan said Gibson has saved lives, and continues to do so through her work.
“She is extremely dedicated and what she gives of herself far exceeds expectation,” Baidwan said.
“She is a true hero.”