Margie Randle dabbled with injecting heroin in Adelaide as a teenager but when she moved to Sydney, aged 18, in 1981, the drug took hold.
“Heroin was all the rage then,” she says. “Everyone was doing it. Move to Sydney in 1981 as an 18-year-old. What could possibly go wrong?”
She still uses very occasionally now as a 55-year-old and is on suboxone. “I can’t use all the time now; it’s too much hard work.” But Margie strongly feels that her authenticity helps her immensely in her part-time job as a clean needle worker for Hepatitis SA in Adelaide.
She works mainly out of sites in Port Adelaide and Warradale in the suburbs of Adelaide. The clean needle program (CNP) workers in South Australia work what they call either ‘fixed’ or ‘sessional’ sites; a sessional site is what workers in other states call ‘secondary’ sites.
Both Port Adelaide and Warradale have a large client base from nearby public housing. Margie says she cuts through potentially months of small-talk by just letting clients know that she understands their world first-hand. She sees her role as fostering trust.
“As soon as you identify yourself as someone who has injected drugs their whole stance changes. Clients are waiting to be discriminated against or are really wary about what they say and don’t want to ask questions. They just want to come in and leave quickly. But once you say something like ‘yeah – I used to do that’ they are not as wary anymore, and are more trusting.
“It cuts through a lot of time. Otherwise you have to work a lot harder to get their trust. If they know you have been there they are more open.”
When Margie started injecting, there was no such thing as clean needle programs. “When I first started using there were no CNPs or anything like that. We had to buy glass syringes from medical suppliers and everyone shared. CNPs are just amazing.
“It’s a really important thing to get people educated and using clean equipment and keep them as healthy as possible while they are using drugs.”
She moved back to Adelaide from Sydney ten years ago and began doing some volunteer work for the AIDS Council of South Australia.
Then Margie started volunteering for Hepatitis SA which led to part-time work. Since then she has done a lot of work around syringe filters, trying to persuade those who inject pills to use them to make their drug use safer.
“Sadly in South Australia we have to charge for filters so I find clients don’t like spending a dollar on one. I know, it sounds crazy, but they just don’t. We work hard on convincing people to use them. We tell them if they filter their fix it is better for their veins and for their body. But most that come in are long term users and they get into habits of mixing up the way they always have. When you introduce a new step people are wary and don’t trust it. They have done the same thing for 20 years, why would they change? We tell them: ‘it’s not hard, it’s one step, it’s cleaner and you won’t get chalk and bacteria in your body.’”
Margie is also proud of a Hepatitis C innovation at the centres she works at, in which specialist nurses or doctors go to the centres on certain days with fibroscans (a non-invasive test to quantify liver disease) so they can scan clients in-house.
“It works really well because people don’t have to go to hospital or a doctor, they come here and get their fibroscan done and get on treatment from there.”
She has also done a lot of work on assuring clients that the new treatments for hepatitis C – such as Harvoni – are less invasive and have fewer side effects than Interferons. “People are scared of Hep C treatment because they associate it with Interferon which made people really sick. It was awful.”
Workers don’t have to have lived experience to successfully connect with people who inject drugs. Margie mainly works with people who inject ice. Her tips for all NSP workers in relation to people who inject ice are:
- “Just be nice. Everyone likes people being nice to them.”
- “Be accepting. Often people just want to talk or vent or they’re having a bad day, and that’s all fine with me.”
- Try to keep them calm; don’t startle them or raise your voice.
“You have be calm yourself to keep them calm.”
- “Speak slowly, agree with them, don’t be aggressive or antagonise them.”
“We work hard on convincing people to use them [filters]. We tell them if they filter their fix it is better for their veins and for their body. But most that come in are long term users and they get into habits of mixing up the way they always have. When you introduce a new step people are wary and don’t trust it. They have done the same thing for 20 years, why would they change? We tell them: ‘it’s not hard, it’s one step, it’s cleaner and you won’t get chalk and bacteria in your body.’”
– Chris Johnston