Hundreds, if not thousands, of people in British Columbia are alive today thanks to Ryan Vena, his best friend says, as loved ones mourn the death of a man who took it upon himself to respond to overdoses in the Downtown Eastside years before he became a paramedic.
In 2016, Vena founded the volunteer-run Street Saviors Outreach Society (SSOS) as he navigated his own recovery from his heroin addiction. of the Downtown Eastside neighborhood of Vancouver.
The 42-year-old with a “larger-than-life,” “out of this world” personality died in his sleep on June 14, just a day before he was scheduled to begin a treatment program for PTSD he suffered because of his work as a paramedic, according to Elijah Blezard, his best friend of 30 years.
The cause of his death is still unknown, Blezard said.
“It’s a tragedy and it’s devastating and it’s left a huge hole in the community,” Blezard told Breaking:.
Once Vena realized in early 2016 that fentanyl was killing his friends, he obtained a certificate in CPR and first aid and began recruiting volunteers and soliciting donations for damage control supplies, blankets, warm clothes, food and personal items to distribute.
“Ryan brought everyone he could to the Downtown Eastside to help save his friends,” Blezard said.
The community had been Vena’s home for several years in his late teens and early adulthood in the thick of his addiction. According to court records, Vena also spent time in prison for crimes to help pay for his addiction.
“People down there are people too, and that’s often forgotten,” Vena said in an animated speech at a SSOS fundraiser in 2018, adding that the Downtown Eastside nonprofit team was “religious twice a week, handing out of food, hugs and love and sometimes bringing people back from the dead.”
“Sometimes that’s all it takes… a smile, a hug, a hello.”
SSOS also helps people access housing and employment support, complete income and disability assistance applications, and get referrals to treatment and detox programs.
Vena had studied social work and became a paramedic in 2019. All the while, he provided free naloxone training to the public and businesses to teach others how to save lives too.
But Vena’s sense of duty never overshadowed his penchant for risk and adventure, Blezard said. He was an avid fisherman, loved to DJ and sometimes dressed up in quirky costumes to volunteer on site at various BC music festivals.
“That just speaks to Ryan’s nature. It didn’t matter who you were, where you were, what you were,” said Blezard. “He would be there to help where possible.”
More support needed for paramedics, union says
The circumstances of Vena’s death highlight the heavy burden of trauma and mental health issues faced by BC paramedics, said Blezard and Ambulance Paramedics of BC, Vena’s union.
Vena loved his job, but the disturbing calls he responded to across BC led him to take leave of his job from early 2022 due to PTSD.
He was unable to get enough support or return to work before his death, Blezard said.
The overlapping toxic drug crisis, the 2021 heat dome and other extreme heat events, as well as climate disasters and staff shortages have taken their toll on paramedics, according to BC President Troy Clifford’s Ambulance Paramedics.
About 30 percent of paramedics deal with psychological injuries, Clifford said WorkSafeBC data shows that this is the highest percentage of any healthcare or first responder occupation in BC
While support has improved in recent years, there’s still more work to be done, Clifford said.
“Any time we lose a member or someone leaves with PTSD or has an occupational accident or mental injury, it’s unacceptable,” he added.
CBC has contacted BC Emergency Health Services for comment.
Blezard hopes that support for paramedics will be improved and that Vena’s legacy will live on in each of the people whose lives he helped save.
“He didn’t save hundreds of lives. Ryan saved thousands of lives, from close personal friends to people’s recovery,” said Blezard.