Heroes

Giving patients back their dignity

Photo courtesy of Dr. Larina Reyes-Smith.

When Dr. Larina Reyes-Smith sees me in the parking lot at Richmond Centre Mall, her face lights up like she’s spotted an old friend (we’ve met once before, briefly) and she gives me an enormous hug. She does the same thing to the restaurant greeter, whom she recognizes as a friend of her son’s.

This gesture, expansive, generous, loving, and utterly indiscriminating, is a little glimpse of her character that helps you understand why she decided to specialize in Addiction Medicine – and why she loves her work and her patients with such passion.

“The addicts I treat,” she says adamantly, “are some of the most grateful and generous people I know. Every one of them is beautiful and unique.”

She may have a big heart, yet Dr. Larina is no softie. Her small stature and gentle smile mask an inner core of steely determination: something she needed in order to overcome the many obstacles she encountered before she was able to practice medicine in Canada.

“I don’t know if it was because I was a woman or because I was a foreigner,” she muses, “but I encountered a lot of discrimination.”

Dr. Larina was a member of the first class of medical students to graduate from the Ateneo de Cagayan. Immediately after graduation she left the Philippines for England with her husband Neil, a British national whom she met at university. They lived in England for four years before settling in Canada.

Dr. Larina recounts an incident during her medical training at St. Paul’s Hospital which gave her the first glimmer that Addiction Medicine was the field for her.

“There was a patient, very big and very drunk, wearing nothing but a hospital gown, who suddenly got up, said, ‘I’m out of here,’ and pulled out his IV. He took one step and fell flat on his face.

“I remember feeling not pity or compassion so much as a profound embarrassment for him. I wanted to cover him up. And that’s when I began to realize that I wanted to work with this population to help them recover the dignity they’ve lost.”

Dr. Larina eventually became one of the first doctors in British Columbia to become trained and certified in Addiction Medicine. “It’s a relatively new field,” she says. “We’re still in the process of setting up our own board and becoming a recognized body.”

In the meantime, Dr. Larina has wasted no time in establishing protocols, training nurses, and working in various clinics, first in the Downtown Eastside and now in Surrey, to help addiction patients.

Together with five other doctors she wrote “Stepping Forward”, a policy paper for the British Columbia Medical Association (BCMA) outlining ten recommendations for the implementation of province-wide addiction treatment. Among the recommendations are to treat addiction as a chronic illness and to provide detox on demand.

“If a person makes the decision to quit now and starts going through the withdrawal symptoms, he’s not going to be able to wait three days – let alone three weeks – to be admitted into a detox program,” Dr. Larina points out.

She uses the same combination of compassion and practicality when it comes to looking after her patients’ spiritual needs. “While I was at Vancouver Detox, it occurred to me that many of these patients needed someone just to listen, to talk, to pray with them. I arranged for Street Ministry of St. Mary’s Parish to come and visit with whoever needed them.” The group now exercises a flourishing ministry within the detox program, with quite a few inspiring stories of recovery and conversion. One former patient, John Oakley, recently published a book of photo-poetry entitled Loving Blessings from God.

A young nurse once asked Dr. Larina how she manages to keep from becoming jaded in her line of work.

“Treating this population, I’ve learned that beauty and creativity can flourish even in the midst of suffering,” says Dr. Larina. “I can’t ever become jaded. The day I become jaded is the day I quit.”

Read this article in the December 2010 issue of Living Today magazine (flip to page 14).

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