Decades-long work of outreach nurses in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside highlighted in documentary

Two nurses who have been working side-by-side doing outreach on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside for more than 30 years say they wouldn't have been able to last this long if not for one another.

Evanna Brennan is 75 and Susan Giles is 68. They are still working full time despite having retired once already -- 10 years ago in 2012.

"We weren't ready, we still had energy to do more," Giles tells CTV News.

Their work is the subject of documentary called "Angels on Call" that screened Sunday.

Empathy, humility, and the ability to find joy in what can at times be heartbreaking work is what they say keeps them going as the neighbourhood remains "ground-zero" for the overlapping crises of homelessness and toxic drug deaths.

"We're quite well known as a pair down there. If one of us isn't there, the other people go, 'Where's the other one? What's going on?'" Giles says.

"What keeps us going also is having that support of each other. I wouldn't have stayed in the field as long -- I know I wouldn't have -- without that support of someone that's with you, that really knows exactly what's going on," says Brennan.

"This is really an unusual relationship to go on this long, and to hang in there that this long. You need two people, two like-minded people, and you need to be able to laugh. We have lots of fun because people are very interesting and very funny."

They began working together in the 80s, as homecare nurses with Vancouver Coastal Health doing outreach in the neighbourhood. In the 90s they cared for people with HIV/AIDS as the epidemic devastated the Downtown Eastside at the same time as fatal overdoses were climbing.

"Now, with the poisoned drug supply, there's just so many overdoses and deaths from poisoned drugs and so much more homelessness," Giles says.

"To see so many homeless folks out on the street living in tents that are just totally disconnected, it's is really worse than it was back in the 90s when we thought it was pretty bad. There's the horror of the opioid crisis where people are just gone," Brennan adds.

"Outside the door of the centre we work at, there are lots of overdoses, not all of them make it. It's horrifying to think that nobody has a chance, no family knows until it's too late. All of those things really are very wearing, and we see it over and over and over again."

After retiring from their position with the health authority, they began working with the Lookout Housing and Health Society. They walk the streets and visit shelters and SROs providing medical care to people who don’t routinely visit clinics or doctor's offices.

"We do a lot of wound care for chronic leg ulcers. They might develop cancer or chronic diseases that are difficult to manage when you're out on the street a lot of the day trying to hustle," Giles explains.

"So your health care takes a backseat. So we try to provide that practical link to care and do whatever we can do to promote them getting a bit healthier."

They call this model of nursing "Action Based Care." Underlying their approach is that it is critical to meet people where they are, and give them what they say they need without judgment or an agenda of any kind.

"It's not just about going in and concentrating just on a leg wound, it's getting to know that person. Everyone has a story and a life," Giles says.

"They realize that we will come back the next day and maybe we can do a little something. It's that kind of thing, not brushing people off and not being stuck back in an office," Brennan adds.

"If you're a nurse that wants to see improvement and move on, this job is not for you, this area is not for you."

The two always give out their phone number and on occasion they say they do hear from people who have moved on from the neighbourhood years later.

"That's really wonderful when that happens. It's great that we're able to help in a small way," Brennan says.

With their most-recent contract up at the end of June, the pair says they may actually consider retiring for good this time. Part of their job involves training new nurses to practise using their model of care.

"Anything technical, anything nursing-related, you can learn in a book, but your attitude your empathy is how you look at people that is what you need to develop and have. And that's what we try to show them when they shadow us," Giles says.

They both say stigmatizing people who use drugs or are homeless or impoverished leads to an overall dismissal of their humanity.

"It seems to be getting worse, not better. There needs to be safe supply for people that so they're not using prep drugs but also better long term treatment or housing to somehow get out of this life," Brennan says.

"Because in many ways it seems to me these folks are just considered disposable down here."

The film is directed by Roberta Staley and Tallulah. It will be broadcast Aug. 17 on Telus Optik.

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Peter Bremner