March 18, 2020

UCalgary nursing alumna thrives working on Vancouver’s downtown eastside

Chrystal Chan feels lucky to work with maligned population

It is not a nursing job for the faint of heart. And while Chrystal (Benedek) Chan, BN’14, says some of the things she has seen are “unbelievable,” her work brings her great joy. 

As a community health nurse at Pender Clinic in Vancouver’s downtown eastside (DTES) — an area with a large population of individuals facing addictions, homelessness and chronic mental/physical health concerns — Chan is part of an integrated team that provides outreach and clinic support to the community, offering holistic care through co-ordination and collaboration.

“Within the team, I work with a specialized group of professionals that provide high quality mental and physical health care to a group of people who frequently experience health inequities,” Chan says, adding that no two days are the same when she goes to work. 

Chrystal Chan, BN’14

Chrystal Chan, BN’14, community health nurse, Pender Clinic in Vancouver’s downtown eastside.

“Some days I am working in the clinic practising skills such as wound care and phlebotomy. Other days, I am outreaching clients at local SROs (single-residence-occupancy buildings) where I may have to squat, while providing care, in a small dark room that could be infested with rats or various insects. It pains me that only a block away from Gastown’s upscale restaurants and shopping, people are starving and dying from overdoses.”

While she says sometimes it feels like conditions are that of a third-world country, the work she and her co-workers are doing to make the DTES safer and healthier is relevant and important.

“It doesn’t scare me to work in this neighborhood anymore. There is an incredible sense of community that I have not seen anywhere else. I am so lucky to work with hard-working colleagues and an incredible manager who provide support and understand why we do what we do.”

Perhaps most relevant to Chan’s commitment to her work is her belief in the programs that are offered to help this population. While some are still considered controversial, Chan says they are critical to the survival of many of her clients.

A huge part of what we do is harm reduction: opioid replacement therapy, for example, is where we use methadone, suboxone or extended release morphine to help clients reduce their illicit drug use and subsequently, their chances of overdosing.

“We also refer clients to other programs such safe injection sites, managed alcohol programs, detox and treatment centres.

"It can be difficult for these vulnerable individuals to navigate the medical system and many have past trauma associated with the health-care professionals. It is our hope that we can assist our clients in obtaining the services they feel they need, in a non-judgmental manner.”

Most of all, Chan says, she is proud to work with her clients. “These people are some best people in the world.

"You know, everyone is just a step away from drug addiction, poverty or homelessness. They could be just a so-called ‘normal’ person who has fallen on hard times or someone who has endured years of hardship and experienced inter-generational trauma. I feel so privileged to be trusted to hear these individuals’ stories after the tragedies and inequities they have experienced in life.

"To be the go-to person for a lot of my clients — it is so rewarding. You get to see them make little steps towards wellness  and that’s what makes this the best job on earth.”