Despite the severity of Calgary’s opioid crisis, Katrina Milaney’s research reveals the city’s public systems are failing the people they claim to serve. Through hearing the stories of Calgary’s most vulnerable populations, Milaney’s research drove her to help open the city’s first supervised consumption site, aiding those struggling with addiction.
With each passing day, Calgarians are being confronted with the unavoidable effects of the opioid crisis. According to an Alberta Government report, 215 Calgarians overdosed on fentanyl in 2017. The Calgary zone experienced the highest number of opioid related deaths in the province, with an average of 15.2 per 100,000 people.
Statistics like these led Milaney, an assistant professor at the at the University of Calgary’s medical school, to become the prime researcher for Alberta Health’s Drug Use and Health Survey. To complete the survey, Milaney and the Calgary Coalition for Supervised Consumption administered 370 questionnaires to active drug users in Calgary.
Using Milaney’s research as evidence, the Calgary Coalition for Supervised Consumption applied to Health Canada to get permission to open the site. After receiving approval last October, the site opened in a temporary trailer, and has since moved to a permanent space in the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre in January.
So far, the site seems to be helping. According to the provincial government’s monthly report, the site was visited 2,281 times in February and prevented 29 overdoses.
Through her initial research for the site, Milaney heard numerous stories about the shortcomings of Calgary’s public systems.
“We live in a culture that is obsessed with fixing broken people but I think it's our systems that are broken,” - says Milaney
“There were a lot of the people who talked about experiences of discrimination,” Milaney explains.
“I met one young man who told me a story of having a very bad infection in his arms. He went to the hospital and when they found out he was an I.V. drug user, they told him to come back when he was sober. He then got a worse infection and ended up in emergency.”
Milaney says stories like this are not unusual.
“It's just not acceptable that in this amazing city with so many opportunities and resources, there are so many people that are struggling.”
Because of this, Milaney takes a fairly critical stance in her research on public health systems.
“We live in a culture that is obsessed with fixing broken people but I think it's our systems that are broken,” says Milaney. “[The systems] are not always in the best interests of people who are in need.”
However, Milaney believes her research is making a difference in this area.
“It's really important to me that I do everything I can as an academic and as a community partner to try and address some of these challenges,” Milaney explains. “I feel a moral and ethical obligation to make sure that I do my part.”
Meaghan Bell was Milaney’s research assistant during her time in grad school. Bell explains she greatly admires Milaney’s passionate approach to research.
“I've never seen or worked with anybody who has such commitment to the principles of community-based research, ethical participation and empowering the people she works with,” says Bell.
“She's not asking the individual, ‘What did you do wrong?’ … All of her work looks at the larger structural issues.”
Debb Hurlock, Milaney’s longtime friend and research partner, believes research is a core part of Milaney’s identity.
“At her heart, she's a real advocate for people,” Hurlock explains. “She's definitely not the kind of researcher who does research on people, she does research with people.”
Hurlock sees Milaney’s personal approach to research as a gift.
“Milaney has a way of reflecting on her own lived experience, so it's given her a real sense of empathy. She's a very safe person, particularly for people that are vulnerable and marginalized.”
Bell recalls a time when she saw Milaney’s empathy in action while working alongside her on a research project. The initiative, Inside Out, focused on women who had recently been released from the federal correctional system.
“There were many evenings where our work from the research was ‘distracted’ due to a personal issue one of the women were having,” says Bell. “But there was never any pressure to move on or re-focus on the ‘important’ task at hand. Milaney has a way of making people feel heard and comfortable.”
Because of her empathetic approach, Milaney is aware this area of research can take an emotional toll. However, she believes it is possible to overcome discouragement.
“You really have to hang on to the good things when they happen, like the positive impact this [supervised consumption site] is having in our city in terms of saving lives,” says Milaney.
“You have to focus on those big positive changes to get you through the difficult times.”
Bell also understands how important it is to maintain this positive mindset.
“This work is really challenging; it's heartbreaking … For every win you feel — it feels like there's a hundred losses,” Bell explains.
“But Milaney kept the ability, within all of that chaos, to still show vulnerability.”
Hurlock explains Milaney’s sense of leadership is also evident in the details of her research.
“She never loses the importance of the story of a person's life … she keeps it centered to who she is and why she does her work.”
Milaney’s research has helped produce many positive effects, namely Calgary’s first supervised consumption site. However, many Calgarians still face obstacles when trying to seek help.
Because of this, Milaney realizes her work is far from over.
“I know this site is a very good first step, but it is just a first step,” says Milaney. “There are a number of people who will not access a supervised consumption site and are still at risk of overdose.”
With more supervised consumption sites expected to open throughout Alberta in 2018, Milaney is determined to keep making progress.
“My motivation is to make sure that those who are in positions to change things are continually pressured to understand that we are just getting started in this harm reduction conversation in Alberta,” says Milaney.
“We are way behind where we need to be.”
- By Sarah Green