Clevva’s Story: Life with Stella

Clevva’s Story: Life with Stella

I was Stella’s patient since 1969. She was a goddess, the only person who understood us back then. She was one-out, the leader everyone else watched. It was not just that she pioneered drug treatment services in Australia, though that was incredible. It was that she understood detoxing or getting on methadone weren’t enough on their own. She organised housing and gave people work and purpose.

Stella really gave us respect. No-one else would give us a glance, but she dedicated her whole life to improving ours. Back then, doctors only treated users on the quiet, it was all very hush hush. But Stella was loud and proud about it, she spoke up for us, with politicians, in the media and so on. She was an actual life saver; she really fought for us, to get methadone up and get the detox program happening.

In other places they pigeon-holed users, they seemed to want to control us and keep us quiet. But Stella wanted us alive and healthy. While most states were doing blockade – in Queensland you went on 230 mg from your first dose – Stella started people on 40 mg then increased them gradually as necessary.

In Queensland, you were only judged suitable for the methadone program if you hung out badly enough after being given a shot of naloxone (Narcan). Stella gave methadone to anyone who asked for it. She even prescribed to a friend of mine who was 16. She broke the law but she saved his life.

She was only allowed to prescribe for 10 people – that was the limit then – so she got many other doctors on board, training them to work with us. She was very charismatic and persuasive.

If she couldn’t treat someone, she found a way for them to be treated. I had friends who were bussed up to Queensland to get on a program. In the mid-80s, they stopped funding methadone for a while in NSW, so Stella ordered buses, accommodation and referrals for dozens of Sydney users to go up to Tweed Heads to get on the program.

Stella took over Wisteria House, an abandoned building that was part of Cumberland Hospital in Parramatta. She spent her own money on repairs and a new kitchen. She made dormitories for detoxing, putting mattresses anywhere she could fit them. Before that, the only detoxes were padded cells where heroin users would be locked in for a week on their own, with no meds or care.

She got her patients involved to motivate us and get us some work experience. She only had to put a sign on the notice board that she wanted people to paint a room, or fix something or whatever, and dozens of people would put their hands up. We just wanted to put back and we would do anything for her. A lot of us worked there every day. I worked in the garden and it was so beautiful that the hospital staff used to come and eat their lunch there.

Stella really knew her patients. She remembered all our names and never forgot a birthday. I got a card every year for 17 years until I went interstate and lost contact. She went to court for 95% of us; she’d tell the judges we were not bad people, we just had social and health issues that should be sorted in different ways from sending us to jail and they listened to her. She even traveled to Malaysia to give life-saving evidence for two of her former patients facing death sentences for heroin trafficking.

She also got family involved. She used to hold BBQs and invite the parents of her patients. This was in the days of the “tough love” model. She got many families back together, including helping me connect with my Mum.

Another thing she did – and this was way before HIV and “harm reduction” – was get us using plastic syringes. It was the day of glass syringes and the needles used to get very blunt and burred which caused lots of damage to veins. She used to get 2ml plastic syringes from vets and give them to us. She would say, just use them once and throw them away, and she gave us vein care tips.

Stella was way before her time. I can’t thank her enough for keeping me and my friends alive, and for changing so many things for people who use drugs. She was amazing.

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