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Learning about the power of compassion, empathy

Lorraine Graves   Mar-06-2018

"It’s not a criminal issue. It’s not a moral issue. It's a medical issue that needs to be treated with compassion and empathy," says community liaison worker, Guy Felicella.

Photo by Chung Chow

Guy Felicella remembers the day his life changed.

After telling him about living with depression, her black days, community worker Liz Moss said, “Do you feel black?”



“I will never forget it. It was like the sky parted and I looked up and I just said, ‘yeah,’”

Now educating school children, health professionals and the general public while working as a community liaison officer for Downtown Eastside Connections, Felicella talks of his teaching method.

“I think with addiction, you have to attach a story to it. You have to have more understanding instead of just a judgement call.”

Felicella’s story started ordinarily enough. He grew up in Steveston, went to St. Paul’s and James McKinney for elementary school, then to Boyd and London for junior secondary school.

“I played West Richmond soccer for 15 years. I played baseball. I was just an everyday average day kid—middle class—growing up in Richmond. I wasn’t like a person you’d think would do drugs. The last place anybody every thought they’d see me was the Downtown Eastside.”

But, by adolescence, he couldn’t stop the pain from years of verbal and physical abuse.

“When you‘re dealing with pain you just want to get rid of it as fast as possible,” Felicella says.

“The first drug I ever smoked was pot. It was the answer for me at 12. And then at 16 it was cocaine. And then, right after it was heroin. Obviously for me, the weed wasn’t stopping the pain; coke wasn’t stopping any pain. When I found heroin the answer hit me.”

For decades, living on the streets, stealing to support a $300-to-$400-a-day habit, heroin was the answer, and the only answer, to Felicella’s pain, until the day he had that fateful conversation with worker Liz Moss at Vancouver Coastal Health’s Insite, safe injection, Centre in the Downtown Eastside.

Her compassion reached his heart and started Felicella on the path to a new life, away from self-hatred, street drug use, and most of all, away from pain.

Felicella was given clean, safe drugs to substitute the expensive, dirty ones he’d been using. The street drugs were dirty not only in their lack of medicinal purity but in their sterility. Once again, practical compassion saved not only Felicella’s life but his leg.

“I had life-threatening osteomyelitis from dirty drugs. Four or five times they wanted to amputate my left leg so now I walk with a limp but at CTCT in Downtown East Side (The Community Transitional Care Team, a residential acute care clinic in the Downtown East Side), you could use while living at the facility while you got antibiotics. One of the reasons I have a left leg is their accepting me, reducing harm, not looking and judging.”

According to one substance user’s mom, infections from illegal drugs continue to be a big problem.

She says hallways at St. Paul’s Hospital are filled each morning with injection drug users sitting in chairs receiving their scheduled daily intravenous antibiotic treatments to deal with the aftermath—horrendous skin lesions, systemic infections—of dirty drugs.

Pharmaceutical grade drugs have to pass rigorous health and cleanliness standards. Street drugs don’t. Dirty drugs cost taxpayers many health dollars. Clean, legal drugs save money.

After the fateful day Liz Moss reached out to Felicella, the day her compassion hit home and the day when there were useful options in place for him, Felicella opted for opiate assistive therapy where clean, safe drugs are provided by the health care system to help people stabilize their physical and mental health.

“What opiate assistive therapies do is they address the physical need to stabilize the person using substances,” he says. “Once the physical dependence gets addressed, so the person isn’t so hell bent on getting drugs, they can start piecing their life back together.”

And piece it back together, he did.

“I was on opiate assistance therapy which addressed my physical dependency. It actually frees up the mind on learning new ways to cope. I started to talk about it with people.”

And how did that learning to cope come about?

“We all come to a point in our life where we have to trim off a little bit of the pain. Don’t try to look at it all. Just try to look at what you can do. Just trim it off bit by bit and when you can’t handle it, stay on your opioid assistance therapy.”

Today, with a job, home and two children to bring even more joy into his life, Felicella works at a clinic that offers free drop-in treatment services for those with substance use and other issues.

It offers opioid substitution therapy as well as providing take-home naloxone kits, peer support, and the services of on-site nurses, social workers, financial liaison, and community workers.

Physicians and pharmacists are also available to give clients medication for conditions such as HIV, hepatitis C, and psychiatric illnesses.

Felicella also freelances as a speaker in elementary and high schools, teaching children and teachers alike that a middle class life is no armour against drug addiction. He speaks of his journey, teaching compassion, teaching hope.

Felicella speaks of the need for ongoing care and support, so that people leaving substance abuse can lead healthier lives.

“If you can just get away from street drugs, the first 3 months are just such a battle in itself. What happens to your clients when they finish your treatment? We need a transitional facility where people can go and live afterwards, learning life skills, jobs, get jobs through this, find housing, all these things.”

A house in Richmond’s Woodwards district is home to a transition house for women, women who are putting their lives back together now that they are clean and sober. Many more such ordinary-looking houses, where people can build on the healthy lives they’ve started, are needed.

Felicella says that until society changes its attitude, the costs associated with street drug use will continue and middle class kids will continue to overdose on drugs that contain unexpected lethal additives like

Fentanyl. People do what it takes to find the hundreds of dollars every day to get the drugs they need to numb their pain.

Felicella teaches that anyone who has had a break-in or a theft from their car has been touched by the high price of illegal street drugs.

“Substance abuse not only impacts the person using it,” says Felicella. He speaks of the kids from good homes ending up in the Downtown Eastside, of the families devastated by overdoses, and of the need for practical compassion: “You can’t save a dead addict.”

Today, Felicella sees an additional benefit in his new life: “I have two beautiful children. Without all the help, without the opiate assistive therapy, my son wouldn’t have been born my daughter wouldn’t have been born.”

He cautions against teaching with a one-size-fits-all approach: “We’re all unique individuals, what may work for some may not work for others.”

But he says that, for him, opiate assistive therapy was vital, that and Liz Moss’s kindness.

What does he want the students and adults he speaks with to learn?

“Show a bit more compassion and empathy towards people who are really struggling. That’s what really wins it over in the end,” Felicella says, “I would not be here today without it.”

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