It takes a team: Alyssa’s journey from the streets of the DTES to a future with her son
Submitted by Elaine Yong, senior communications specialist - media relations, Communications & Public Affairs
At 10 months old, Hazen is the centre of his mom’s universe. He is an animated and happy baby who loves going out for walks, especially if he gets to see dogs and wave at people. His main word right now is “Yeah”. He brings his mom Alyssa plenty of joy and laughter, but she also credits him with something even more profound - she says he saved her life.
A year ago, she was pregnant and homeless, living on the Downtown Eastside and sleeping on the sidewalk. She had spent the previous decade in the grips of vicious cycles of addiction, using opioids and other illicit drugs when things got bad. Alyssa’s first son, now six years old, is in care. She had a mental health breakdown when he was two and she lost him to care. That pushed her over the edge back into addiction, where she remained.
“I went through some experiences when I was younger that I internalized, and it came out that way through my addictions,” recalls Alyssa.
A few years later, afraid of what lay ahead with the birth of her second child, Alyssa went into labour on East Hastings Street. She ended up at St. Paul’s Hospital.
“When I saw my son Hazen, I realized I didn’t want to make the same mistakes. I just wanted to change,” says Alyssa. The 26-year old says, right from the start, her experience at St. Paul’s was different than with her first son’s birth. “I felt really supported, and that helped a lot. I felt like as long as I put the work in, I would get help.”
From the moment Hazen was born, Alyssa sprang into action. With the help of the St. Paul’s Maternity team, and her own intense motivation she got treatment for her addictions. She attended group and support meetings at the Three Bridges Community Health Centre, a block away from the hospital. Sometimes she went to multiple meetings a day.
Hazen was in the NICU at first, but was discharged to Alyssa’s room. She managed to be back in her hospital room every single time her son was awake. “The non-judgemental way that I received care helped a lot. I felt comfortable and safe.”
After the birth of her first son, though she wasn’t using at that time, she remembers feeling judged. Social workers came to see her, and samples of her son’s hair and urine, and her blood, were taken for drug testing.
At St. Paul’s, Alyssa and Hazen stayed on the Maternity unit for a month. The maternity team was determined to do what it could to keep mom and baby together to support Alyssa’s treatment, saying they could see how determined she was to parent. Alyssa didn’t wait for referrals. She actively found resources in the community and her own therapist, and connected with the Indigenous Health and Wellness Team.
When Alyssa left the hospital, she enrolled in a longer treatment program in the Lower Mainland that accepted her and Hazen. She recently graduated, and the pair have their own place in Vancouver. Alyssa’s first son has since been adopted, but it’s an open adoption and she has been able to reconnect with the family. She’s been getting photos and updates, and hopes to visit him soon.
Now, Alyssa is ready to think about their future. While at St. Paul’s, she started upgrading her education. She is hoping to enroll in a science course at Langara so she can pursue a career in healthcare, perhaps as a peer support worker, helping other women who are in the same situation, sharing her own lived experience. “It’s really hard when you are in that state of addiction to even access programs. You need someone to reach out to you.”
Ideally, Alyssa says she would like to return to St. Paul’s. This time, as a member of the team, and not as a patient. “I feel really proud that I have him [Hazen] still, and I feel really good about myself.”