Monday, August 13, 2007

From the streets to the classroom

From the rough streets of Vancouver's drug districts to the soft lecture hall seats at the University of Toronto, Nanaimo's Jason Devlin is taking an unorthodox path to becoming a doctor.

Today, Devlin is finishing up another summer in the Applied Environmental Research Lab at Malaspina University-College, where he has been working on innovative ways to measure contaminants in water. Six years ago the high school-dropout was living in Vancouver, spending his days with friends, high on heroin, as 'normal' life went on around them.

Devlin has travelled far from that place of his life, and he's not done yet. The recent bachelor of science graduate at Malaspina University-College packed up his desktop computer this week as he prepares for medical school in Ontario.

If there's one thing he learned, though, it's that he didn't get here on his own. Because of the services available for street kids in Vancouver, Devlin, now 23, was able to stay reasonably healthy until he was ready to recover.

He benefitted from the services, but he knows that many of the estimated 150,000 homeless youth across Canada often do not.

"Vancouver is very good to its homeless," he said.

"Without the services everybody would be hooking, robbing and stealing. It's weird because the services made it easier for me to stay in, but they were necessary for me when I wanted out."

With at least four years of medical school ahead of him, Devlin has yet to decide on a specialty, but he will likely return to the streets where he can battle the HIV/AIDS epidemic, or other communicable diseases that plague the country's poorest people.

Few doctors will have a story like Devlin's. His high school in Powell River expelled him at 14 because of his wild and elaborate clothing choice

Bored in his small town, he and friends would take Ritalin or whatever else they could find to get high.

He later became hooked on cocaine and crystal methamphetamine.

After two years of sleeping on the street, Devlin moved into an apartment, where he said things only got worse. He and his friends would pump heroin into themsleves and then simply lie around in their own filth, until it was time to get more. This pattern continued until the junkies set a date to kick their habits for good. When January 2002 came, only Devlin had actually reduced his drug use to the point where he could quit. Leaving his friends behind, he packed up and returned to his parent's home in Powell River.

When he finished the last of his small stash of heroin, Devlin said the pain was nearly unbearable.

To keep his mind off the long-term withdrawal symptoms, he enrolled in adult basic education programs at the Malaspina campus in Powell River. A year later he graduated high school and enrolled in a four-year degree program in Nanaimo. During his four years he won the Undergraduate Summer Research Award from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council three times. He also received the Governor General's Academic Silver Medal for outstanding achievement in a four-year degree program.

Devlin hopes those achievements, combined with his academic knowledge and unique personal experiences, will give him the skills he needs to bring his life full circle: Back to the streets of Vancouver, to help those who need it most.

author: Derek Spalding

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