Dr. Nader Sharifi, Medical Director of Correctional Health Services, has been a health care provider in BC for more than 22 years.
Approximately 17 years ago, he made a change in his career path as a result of a personal trauma in his own life. And it was this trauma that helped him discover a true passion for the work he does with people living with mental health and substance use issues.
Nader had a home and a family practice that had been running for about five years in West Vancouver. His wife, who was just finishing her practicum, had plans to teach at the Squamish Elementary School. Everything was falling into place in their lives, but little did they know it would all change. In a tragic car accident on the Sea-to-Sky highway, Nader’s wife passed away. After the loss of his wife, he shared he struggled with continuing to work, which led to the loss of his family practice and home.
Shortly after this difficult time, a colleague in Family Practice at Forensic Psychiatric Hospital (FPH) reached out to Nader with an opportunity. His colleague was going on maternity leave, and suggested it could be a healthy change for Nader and an opportunity to try something new. In 2001, he accepted the position as Family Physician at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital, and this was the beginning of a life-long career dedicated to treating and caring for people with mental health and substance use issues.
While covering the maternity leave position at FPH, he accepted a role as prison physician with BC Corrections at North Fraser Pretrial and later moved on to Surrey Pretrial. Nader realized the experience he’s had in his own life was what gave him more compassion and understanding for his patients and clients both at the hospital and in a correctional setting.
“Tragedy will sometimes clear you of preconceptions or stigma related to mental illness and addictions and prison medicine. I realized the patients I was seeing in the hospital were not that different than me, they had difficult lives too,” says Nader. “I saw a lot of humanity, and a great need to improve the health of those with mental health and substance use issues and the overall health of people in prison.”
Nader identified the need to gain more education and training in addictions medicine, given a number of the patients he was treating were struggling with alcohol and other substance use issues. After nearly 17 years of working in correctional health he accepted the position of Medical Director of Correctional Health Services before the transition of services to the Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA). Now two months into his new role, his focus has been on the transition of Correctional Health Services to PHSA which he shares was a success, and the team he works with is one the main reasons for that success.
“Everybody I work with is amazing, there is a very positive vibe, and everyone’s heart is in it, to make things better for patients,” says Nader. “I look forward to coming in and seeing everybody from leadership to the front-line staff. It’s quite heart-warming to see; I hope this positive energy continues to drive things and create a humane way of providing health care to correctional clients.”
The focus of Nader and his team is the health of correctional patients, and supporting them so they can maintain their health when they reintegrate back into the community. In the context of the opioid crisis, it is critical.
“The most important thing right now is to make sure our patients are not dying by overdose. It’s a problem in custody, but also once clients are released from prison. It is very high-risk.”
The Correctional Health Services team wants to have an impact in this area, by treating not only with medication but ensuring the psycho-social supports are in place. He shares they look at patients in a holistic way so they can succeed in stabilizing clients in the community. While they are not there yet, they have plans in place to make this a possibility, and have very dedicated and passionate people to move it forward.
Nader says that front-line staff have about an average of 30-60 days with patients in correctional health, and it can be challenging to make an impact. His team has seen success in treating patients with dignity and respect and like fellow human beings. A large part of their work is to ensure what they start in correctional centres continues in the community.
And while patient-centred care is at the forefront of everything they do, Nader shares it does get more complicated in a correctional setting.
“The most important thing I try to remind myself of is that our clients’ punishment is going to prison. The courts have ruled and their freedom has been taken away. But once they’re in prison, they’re not there to be punished,” says Nader. “That idea has a lot to do with the stigma that exists. In the prison system, we continue to care for individuals the same way we care for them in the community. We look at them as humans, holistically, and for many it’s their life situations that have brought them here. We are there as health care providers.”
Nader was born in Iran, and migrated to England with his family when he was six months old. He and his family lived in England for 10 years, before moving to the United States where he went to high school. He moved to Vancouver, BC in the early 80s, where he took his undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia, followed by medical school at Dalhousie University in Halifax. In addition to his role with Correctional Health Services, Nader is also the Division Head of Addiction Medicine at Fraser Health, and continues to work as a physician with federal corrections. He has remarried and has three beautiful children, and he shares he wakes up happy every day.