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Ottawa doctor walks away from top hospital job, passes up retirement to continue work with homeless

Leaving the hospital to help others
Doctors devote their careers to caring for the sick, but our everyday hero has decided to take his devotion a step further. He's leaving his role as chief of staff at the Ottawa hospital to take on the most important role of his life.

“I want more drugs!” a clearly agitated 20-something woman demands as she twitches and stands in the examination room of the Shepherds of Good Hope homeless shelter in Ottawa.

Dr. Jeff Turnbull, who presides over the Ottawa Inner City Health drug replacement program where users are slowly weaned off whatever they’re addicted to, is looking over her chart trying to decide how much she should get.

With a trusted smile, Turnbull takes another look at her chart and follows up his decision to keep her dose the same with a reassuring: “Everyone says you’re doing fantastic.”

READ MORE: Families slam what they call Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s lack of response to opioid crisis

At 66, Turnbull could have retired a year ago, instead, as of January, he’ll walk away from a half a million dollar annual salary as the Ottawa Hospital’s chief of staff in order to spend more time taking care of the people that society has forgotten.

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“I don’t think that we should be giving up on people. These are somebody’s family members and they deserve our full attention even if they have a very serious addiction,” Turnbull said.

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Many, like Ricky Belanger, are addicted to opioids and trying to get their lives back on track.

The former waitress at the Parliamentary Restaurant has spent the last 20 years battling her demons and she said her recovery wouldn’t be possible without Turnbull.

“If it wasn’t for him, I’d probably be dead and overdosed,” said Belanger.

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Belanger credits Turnbull’s bedside manner for her commitment to getting better.

READ MORE: New report says opioid prescriptions on the rise in Canada, despite overdose crisis

“It makes me not want to go in the streets and buy drugs,” said Belanger. “It feels good that somebody cares.”

Turnbull does care but he deflects the credit to his team.

Ottawa Inner City Health is a small dedicated group of health professionals focused on the homeless and disadvantaged of Ottawa.

Psychiatric nurse Kim Van Herk has been working with Turnbull for a decade and says he has an uncanny ability to connect with people in a way that other physicians can’t. It’s a task all the more difficult considering many of these people have faced challenges with traditional societal structures.

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“He touches these traumatized people that are very hyper vigilant and they just kind of calm down and they’re OK with him,” said Van Herk.

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Turnbull makes it a point to never talk down to any of his patients, instead, calling them colleagues because Turnbull believes they are equal partners in their health-care treatment.

“You get better care and they become partners in the care, you know. Otherwise, it’s just not going to be effective,” he said.

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Van Herk believes having Turnbull see the issues on the streets first hand, gives him the ability to petition the hospital or governments for more funding or a change in policy.

“Jeff is kind of the person who goes to bat for us,” said Van Herk.

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He’s long advocated for a more holistic approach to treating the city’s drug problem, starting with early childhood development and poverty to prevent people from turning to drugs.

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Turnbull has been doing his rounds on the streets of Ottawa for 15 years, but this year has been the worst by far for overdoses with people having to be resuscitated in the middle of busy streets because they overdosed.

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“Before the summer, we would have maybe two overdoses a month, then we noticed in July that we had four, June was around five, August however we had 38, September 75 and it’s just getting worse and worse,” said Turnbull.

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He knows the problem won’t be solved overnight or even in his lifetime, but Turnbull doesn’t feel he can retire without at least trying.

Turnbull could easily retire tomorrow and spend the rest of his years on a beach or golf course somewhere, but he says the enjoyment he gets from treating the homeless is far more valuable.

“They’ve taught me so much. Compassion, patience, small victories, they show me affection. Personally, I think working with the homeless has made me a better person,” he said.

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