Hundreds, if not thousands, of people in British Columbia are alive and well 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 Saviours Outreach Society (SSOS) as he navigated his own recovery from heroin addiction, setting out with a team of volunteers armed with naloxone to reverse drug poisonings and save lives among people using alone in the alleys of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.
The 42-year-old with a “larger than life,” “out of this world” personality died in his sleep on June 14, just one day before he was supposed to begin a treatment program for PTSD he was suffering due to 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 CBC News.
As soon as Vena realized fentanyl was killing his friends in early 2016, he got CPR and First Aid-certified, and began recruiting volunteers and soliciting donations for harm-reduction supplies, blankets, warm clothes, food and personal supplies to give out.
“Ryan was bringing whoever he could bring with him down to the Downtown Eastside to help try and save his friends,” said Blezard.
The community had been Vena’s home for several years in his late teens and early adulthood in the thick of his addiction. Vena also spent time in jail for crimes to help pay for his habit, according to court records.
“People down there are humans too, and that’s what gets forgotten a lot,” Vena said in an animated speech at a SSOS fundraiser in 2018, adding the non-profit team was in the Downtown Eastside “twice a week, religiously, handing out food, hugs and love and bringing people back from the dead sometimes.”
“Sometimes that’s all it takes … a smile, a hug, a ‘hello.'”
SSOS also helps people access housing and employment supports, fill out income and disability assistance applications, and get referrals to treatment and detox programs.
Vena had studied social work, and he became a paramedic in 2019. All the while, he was providing free naloxone trainings to the public and businesses to teach others to save lives, too.
But Vena’s sense of duty never eclipsed his penchant for risks and adventure, said Blezard. He was an avid fisherman, loved to DJ, and sometimes dressed up in quirky costumes to volunteer as an on-site medic at several music festivals across B.C.
“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 whenever possible.”
More support needed for paramedics, says union
The circumstances of Vena’s death highlight the heavy burden of trauma and mental health challenges paramedics face across B.C., said Blezard and Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., Vena’s union.
Vena loved his work, but the disturbing calls he responded to across B.C. drove him to take leave from work due to PTSD starting in early 2022.
He wasn’t able to access sufficient support or return to work before his death, Blezard said.
The overlapping toxic drug crisis, 2021 heat dome and other extreme heat events, as well as climate disasters and staffing shortages have taken a toll on paramedics, said Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. president Troy Clifford.
About 30 per cent of paramedics are dealing with psychological injuries, Clifford said, and WorkSafeBC data shows that’s the highest proportion of any health-care or first responder profession in B.C.
While supports have improved in recent years, there is still more work to be done, Clifford said.
“Anytime we lose a member or somebody goes off with PTSD or has a workplace injury and psychological injury that’s unacceptable,” he added.
CBC has reached out to B.C. Emergency Health Services for comment.
Blezard hopes supports for paramedics will be improved and 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 getting people into recovery,” said Blezard.