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A Pandemic Year in Review

by Sara F., Development Coordinator

February 2020: we celebrate the announcement that the Alberta Government will fund an additional 30 Residential Treatment and six Medically Supported Detox beds in addition to topping-up the fees paid for detox to meet the standard per-diem at Thorpe Recovery Centre. This commit of $2.2M a year, for three years, will help over 260 additional Albertans who struggle with substance use disorders each year. Although the funding is below the operating cost, it enables the organization to focus on filling beds and improving care. Plans are set to hire a Social Worker, Recreation Therapist, Psych Nurse, and enhance the nursing and counselling teams. The funding is a dream come true to finally see the Centre near its capacity.

Then, comes the announcement on March 16. The Coronavirus encroaches on Alberta and we’re at a standstill on what to do next. The threat of an outbreak at the Centre is daunting. Our team takes action to reduce exposure at the facility and adopts the protocols Chief Medical Officer of Health CMOH 06-2020, the first of our ministerial orders in response to the pandemic. Suddenly, our newly available beds are no longer desired for the fear of infection. It takes a few weeks, but the communication of our funded beds as well as our health and safety protocols reach our referrals and we see admission numbers slowly rise.

During this time, we are humbled by the support of the community with donations of fabric masks, ear-saver bands, and medical masks. We were able to equip our front-line staff and clients with the tools necessary to host safe in-person sessions.

When working in a Community Therapeutic Model, it is difficult to reimagine programming when we’ve all been integrated as a unit. Group sizes are reduced, limiting the peer support. Masks are donned, making it difficult to convey and understand a story. Connection is waning across the facility. We relied on the communion of peer groups and support. We relied on our large gatherings of the Thorpe community to celebrate achievements. We had to stop recreational and support group outings, encouraging high-fives, the comfort of hugs, the intimacy of family visits. We had an identity crisis; what is a community model without the community?

One of our first adjustments to maintain connection was investing in web cams to join the online 12-step and SMART Recovery support group meetings. Our rapport with the surrounding recovery community is one of the pillars of success of those we serve.

By June, we successfully modified programming in a meaningful way while maintaining infection prevention and control protocols. This included an increase of staffing to host smaller groups, connecting those we serve with resources in their home community, offering our Family Intensive online, using our gymnasium as a meeting and therapeutic activity space, and embracing technology as best as possible to connect across the facility and into the recovery community. Our Lunch & Learns are now hosted online and more accessible to our broader community; we now have attendees from as far as Calgary and Moose Jaw.  We found our stride with the amended ministerial orders and with the help of the Tent Guys, we are able to host outdoor family visits to reconnect those we serve with their loved ones in a safe manner.

On through to the Fall, when we were to celebrate our 45th year improving lives. This, of course, is put on hold with the hope we can celebrate in-person “once this whole pandemic blows over” (ha!). A silver lining of the pandemic is the awareness brought to mental health needs in our communities. In September we have a record-breaking Sober September campaign and our 60 Sober Heroes raise over $15,000 for the Centre. The 840% increase in funds raised is thanks to a better understanding of the importance of mental wellness. Thank you to everyone who participated and donated to this campaign.

Positive COVID-19 cases continued to climb in Alberta and we came to the realization that we’re committed to modified programming for the long-haul. We look to modify our largest space, the gymnasium, into a better environment for meetings. At the time, voices were echoed, making it near-impossible to hold a decent group discussion or meeting. With the assistance of funds from Sober September we were able to install sound absorption panels in the rafters which significantly improved the quality of sessions within the gym.

Realizing we could not celebrate our 45th year in person any time soon, we opted to host our Annual General Meeting online. With a modest, yet effective, attendance of society members, we bid farewell to outgoing chairperson, Tom Lysyk, and director, Richard Stephens, and welcomed new directors Greg Buchanan, Blake Hassall, Sharon Williams, Marty Kindrachuk, and Gary Herriot. The usual presentations and showcase of our year-in-review was foregone for the sake of brevity. Needless to say, we look forward to hosting our supporters in the future to share in the stories of the lives they changed.

Enter December 2020 and we find ourselves with a staff-related positive case and are on lockdown. Admissions are halted, clients are now isolated in their dorms and staff contact is restricted. With funds from the Lloydminster & District United Way we are able to purchase isolation kits with TVs, game consoles, DVD players on carts to travel through the hallways to bring entertainment between the one-on-one sessions with counsellors (since group meetings are no longer possible). The tone within the facility is unsettling. Staff are frustrated that they cannot continue with the traditional treatment plans and come up with unique ways to engage the therapeutic community. Clients are frustrated with their sudden loss of community and freedom. Because of the unanticipated lockdown and the realization that Christmas is around the corner, nearly half of our population decides to terminate treatment prematurely. Our team continues to strive for a positive experience and makes the best of the holiday.   However, after two weeks and two rounds of testing of all staff, clients, volunteers, and contractors, we have no other cases and are cleared to resume ‘normal’ operations.

We start the new year with a sigh of relief. We made it through our first case and have found a strength we didn’t know existed. Our team is sharp, focussed, and we all work together to provide the best possible treatment program. With admissions resuming, we have a flood of new clients and welcome 67 new faces into our Centre; quite possibly the most people we’ve ever had in a single month!

That brings us to today. We look back on the year that transformed how we approach recovery and wellness. This was a year of transformation; and although the pandemic has brought challenges, we have emerged stronger than ever. We have improved the client’s connection to their home communities through Alumni Mentors and resources through our Social Workers, we have modified our staffing to better support those we serve, we have made our Family Intensive program more accessible to those who are affected by addiction.

The pandemic has been a nuisance, but perhaps it is something we can still be grateful for. Finding the little joys in every day is something we encourage at the Centre, and we would be hypocritical if we didn’t follow this practice too.

We wish to thank everyone who has reached out, supported, and advocated for mental health and addiction this past year. You have made the pandemic a shining moment in Thorpe’s history.