While Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has provided the backdrop for many of Vancouver’s saddest moments, it’s also a neighbourhood that has also inspired some people to do their best work.
I met Bonnie Fournier in 1998 while working at the WISH Drop-in Centre on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a block up from the open drug market on the corner of Main & Hastings.
The WISH Drop-in Centre, then located at the back of the First United Church provided dinner and respite from the street, hot showers and access to the DEYAS Health Van for the neighbourhood’s sex trade workers.
The DEYAS Health Van
Bonnie Fournier, a registered nurse, had her hands full when the DEYAS Health Van pulled up to the side doors of the WISH Drop-in Centre each night at 6:30 PM. The women who needed her help would wait patiently to see her, knowing that they would never be turned away.
The Health Van had been customized with a special ceiling that provided headroom, built-in shelving and doors that could hold medical supplies. Regardless of how long the line-up outside the Health Van could get, Bonnie made time to see each woman who needed to see her. She always knew how to make them feel special before the Health Van had to leave to go to the Salvation Army’s Crosswalk Shelter on East Hastings. Once inside the DEYAS Health Van, the women of WISH were treated to first-rate medical care. Most would simply feel better just being in the company of a warm, caring, professional nurse.
Mom at Work
Bonnie worked hard dispensing Tylenol, lozenges, multi-vitamins, laxatives and Epsom salts. She also gave flu vaccines, bandaged wounds and did her best to soothe battered women.
Sometimes WISH patrons lined up just to talk to Bonnie and get one of her famous hugs. Bonnie had many nicknames but she was often called “Mom” – the highest honour that could be paid to a woman by the sex trade workers at the Centre.
Most of my clients battled series addiction issues. Heroin and crack cocaine were the drugs of choice for many of the women I knew. Working in the sex trade and being a drug addict is a high-risk lifestyle. Women who worked the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside contracted HIV, Hepatitis C, STD’s, endocarditis and lung infections at an alarming rate. They were also subjected to “bad dates” — men who posed as customers but were really violent predators in disguise. It wasn’t uncommon for the women Bonnie encountered outside the doors of WISH to need some serious medical treatment for things like stab wounds and broken bones.
For fear of being disregarded as mere drug addicts, women who frequented WISH were often reluctant to seek health care from traditional service providers. Bonnie Fournier, or “Nurse Ratched” (another of Bonnie’s many street monikers, based on the dictatorial nurse in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) did not fit into the street population’s perception of a traditional health care provider. Bonnie had a fun, casual side that was underlined by a serious, calming nature. The women of the Downtown Eastside knew that Bonnie would take their concerns seriously and would do whatever she could do to help them.
The Hippocratic Oath
If Bonnie believed a woman to have an illness that required hospitalization, she would arrange for them to be transported to St. Paul’s Hospital. Bonnie would then follow up on the women she referred to St. Paul’s with phone calls to triage nurses, doctors and social workers. None of Bonnie’s actions guaranteed that a woman from WISH would receive the treatment she needed but it usually meant that she would not be turned away by hospital staff at the receiving doors. Any doctor who dismissed a referral from Bonnie Fournier and the DEYAS Health Van could find themselves in the undesirable position of talking to Bonnie about the Hippocratic Oath.
Sometimes I could make out Bonnie’s grey-haired, slender shape from a block or two in the distance while driving myself out of the Downtown Eastside after closing the centre at night. Bonnie always wore a bright blue Gore-Tex jacket with NURSE written in reflective tape across the back. The Health Van, too was blue and had DEYAS written in reflective lettering across its sides.
Bonnie and I often talked about the women we knew from the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood who were going missing. Women had started to disappear from the neighbourhood seemingly without a trace. Together we would talk to police officers, politicians, social workers, you name it, trying to raise awareness about the sex trade workers we knew who were missing.
I left the WISH Drop-in Centre in 2001. A year later, in 2002, Robert Pickton was arrested and was later charged with the murders of many of the neighbourhood’s missing sex trade workers. While in police custody, Robert Pickton would admit to murdering 49 women to an undercover officer. Bonnie and I shared many laughs over the years, but sadly we shared many more tears. Bonnie was the last person to see Serena Abbotsway – a woman who accessed both the WISH Drop-in Centre and the DEYAS Health Van. Serena was one of the women Robert Pickton was convicted of murdering. As the years rolled along the court proceedings revealed horrifying details of the murders of women we had cared for. Bonnie and I vowed to continue our work of creating services for marginalized women.
Inspiration & Humanity
Without question, Bonnie Fournier’s work as a registered nurse working the streets of the Downtown Eastside inspired those around her to do their best work. For me, I will forever remember Bonnie and the DEYAS Health Van as a beacon of humanity that faithfully arrived at 6:30 PM each night at the WISH Drop-in Centre.