Oct 5, 2016

Former Vancouver nurse forced into AA substance abuse program says his religious freedom was violated

Glen Schaefer
Vancouver Sun
October 4, 2016

Byron Wood is complaining that he was forced out of the nursing profession because he refused to continue with AA-style meetings. He's an atheist.

A former Vancouver nurse is claiming his rights as an atheist were violated because his employer and union forced him into Alcoholics Anonymous following a psychotic episode.

Byron Wood was involuntarily committed to hospital by a doctor in October 2013, taken there by ambulance after police were called to a walk-in clinic. Wood, 39, said he was suffering withdrawal symptoms from a combination of alcohol and prescription and street drugs.

“I had some time off work and I had been using substances during that time,” Wood said this week. “Before going back to work I stopped using substances, and I experienced severe withdrawal symptoms which caused me to become psychotic.”

Wood’s B.C. Human Rights Tribunal complaint against the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority and the B.C. Nurses’ Union is set for a pre-hearing meeting this December after the tribunal ruled recently that the complaint can go ahead.

While committed to hospital for two weeks, Wood voluntarily changed his nursing status from practising to non-practising.

“The plan was that if I followed this treatment plan it would be converted back to practising,” he said. “I had never been someone who was using substances all the time. It was more something where at certain points in my life I ran into problems with substances.”

Before the October incident, Wood said he worked for Vancouver Coastal Health for about two years as a mental health nurse in the Downtown Eastside.

“I was a case manager for a mental health team,” he said. “I had a case load of around 50 clients with severe mental illness. So I would be responsible for managing their medications and helping them with all sorts of social issues that they encounter.”

In November, 2013, a doctor recommended a treatment program, and that Wood attend AA meetings. Wood was also to submit to random drug testing and was prohibited from accessing, handling or administering sedatives or narcotics at work for two years.

Wood attended a residential treatment program in Ontario in the spring 2014, staying for five weeks, though he took issue with their methods.

“If I questioned the 12-step philosophy or tried to discuss scientific explanations and treatments for addiction, I was labelled as ‘in denial’,” Wood said. “I was told to admit that I am powerless, and to submit to a higher power. It was unhelpful and humiliating.

“There was a mentality among staff that addiction is a moral failing in need of salvation. We were encouraged to pray.”

After completing that program, Wood said, he returned to B.C. and continued attending AA meetings as ordered. “I continued to correspond with coastal health, the union and the college. I gave them names of secular treatment options . . . I asked for alternatives.”

Ultimately, he said he refused to continue with the mandated three AA meetings a week and was fired in February 2015. He grieved his dismissal, and his union and employer agreed in March 2015 that he be allowed to resign instead.

Wood filed his Human Right complaint Sept. 21, 2015, past the usual six-month time limit for such complaints. The tribunal’s recent decision allowed the complaint to proceed despite that.

That decision noted that the health authority, the College of Registered Nurses of B.C., and the union all denied that they were made aware of Wood’s religious concerns.

“The BCNU denied that it forced the complainant to resign,” tribunal member V.A. Pylypchuk wrote. “The BCNU asserted that, had it known about the complainant’s religious objections, it would have investigated.”

If a resolution isn’t reached at the December meeting, Wood’s complaint could go to a tribunal hearing.


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