CHRIS WILLGRESS: 24 YEARS ANSWERING CALLS ON THE FRONT LINE

By Jeff Vircoe

My husband is drinking himself to death. My daughter is cutting. My wife can’t do a day without two bottles of wine. My dad is taking so many pills, he can’t talk straight.

When they hear the term “first responder”, most conjure images of flashing lights, police, firefighters, and paramedics. At Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, B.C., those first responders work in the admissions department. It is they who typically get the heart-wrenching calls from stressed out, exhausted loved ones. It is they who face the immediate, searing pain of lives affected by addiction.

Since it’s inception in the spring of 1994, the intake, or admissions, team at the facility has brought in over 10,000 patients. That’s a lot of stories. A lot of heartaches. And a fair share of miracles.

It takes a special kind of skill set to receive those calls. One woman who exemplifies that level of skill is Chris Willgress. She has been answering cries for help from the public at Edgewood since the centre was just a few months old.

Still answering the phone, still soothing, asking the right questions, and bringing her heart to addicts’ loved ones from all over the world, Willgress is the longest-serving staff member still working at the private, 80-bed residential facility. Now supervisor of the admissions department, she brings an important, almost motherly, level of continuity to such a critical cog in the wheel of recovery.

Her tenure began with a call from a friend in August of 1994. This friend, an Edgewood employee, had to attend a funeral and needed someone to step in for the day. You know – answer a few calls, pass on a message or two. Edgewood’s owner, Jane Ferguson, trusted her handpicked staff enough to know that whoever was coming in was going to be just fine. Business at the centre wasn’t exactly booming.

“We weren’t getting many calls either,” Willgress says with a chuckle.

Edgewood was, after all, an anomaly at the time. Just a few months old, a private mental health and addiction treatment centre in Canada with room for 42 patients, but lucky to have only 15 or 20 in residence at one time. Business was hardly booming.

Willgress made enough of an impression to land her an invite to come back a couple of days later, this time to tend the phones and look after “the Mall”, Edgewood’s tiny store where nurses pored over patients’ files in an alcove amongst various sundries of which patients typically ran short. Underwear. Toothbrushes. Shaving cream. A t-shirt or two.  As a former checkout till supervisor at a major grocery store, it was hardly an overwhelming challenge for Willgress.

And, just like that, the 32-year-old mom with two young girls, like so many who arrive at Edgewood — staff and patients — the connection to this institution which launched a new life for thousands was made. Her career-long learning curve in addiction therapy began.

As Edgewood began to fill its beds for the first time, staff were often learning as they went. They were, after all, western Canada’s first private mental health and addicion treatment centre team. Willgress faced challenges which often had her second guessing her new job. Front desk reception. Welcoming patients and families. Part listener, part friend, part counselor, part warden. Oh, and part chauffeur, transporting patients in various states of detoxification to doctors’ appointments off site.

“There was no job that [anyone] couldn’t do here. If I was busy, [Clinical Director] Jane [Ferguson] could be having a meeting in her office while doing a luggage search at the same time. And we all made beds,” Willgress says of the team effort to save lives.

From a till at a grocery store to the life and death march from addiction to recovery, Willgress was certainly in uncharted territory at her new job. Born and raised in Victoria, the daughter of a longshoreman father and hospital employee mother, she was the middle child of five, one of four girls. She had no experience with addiction treatment, as far as she knew, before joining the Edgewood team.

“I thought it was going to be all people coming in who lived under [a] bridge, to be honest,” she says. Soon, she was asked to stay later into the evenings, as a female was admitted to treatment who was uncomfortable with the high majority of males in the patient body.

“So, I was by myself working as a support staff in the evenings. Which I was a bit scared of, at first,” she says with a laugh. She soon learned that, in fact, most of the addicts had not been sleeping under bridges. Just like today’s numbers, it turns out most addicts have jobs, families, responsibilities they are trying to meet.

It wasn’t just the patients that took some getting used to. Working with clinicians and 12 Steppers on staff taught her a lot about connecting on a level that was new to her. The language of the heart and soul can be intimidating.

“At first, I thought everyone here was a little bit different, a little bit odd,” she says. “People used to come close to you and they would talk right into your eyes. I wasn’t used to that,” she says.

Like all staff showing promise, Willgress attended the week-long Insite Family Program just a few weeks after joining the payroll. It was there that she discovered addiction is a family illness affecting everyone around the addict. She also began to revisit her own family roots. It turns out she had more experience with addiction that she thought.

“I found out, while I was here, that my father was alcoholic,” says Willgress. “He never missed a day’s work or was sick because of drinking. And it wasn’t daily. But, when there was money, he would drink.”

“It was more his behaviors – which I didn’t realize [were] alcoholism. To me, it was just not very nice. He could be a jerk. He sure controlled the setting of the household. Whatever mood my dad was in was the mood of the household. When it was a bad mood, everyone kind of scattered to their bedrooms and didn’t come out.”

The family illness would eventually lead to two of her siblings going to treatment and finding recovery. Another extended family member is still battling addiction, post treatment.

It can be a tough job working in the field of addiction medicine. The burnout rates are high. The tension of dozens of institutionalized, chaotic, angry, sad humans in a confined environment is palpable. The appropriateness of wages, well, they are always disputable. And in the beginning, as Edgewood the commercial enterprise launched, settled and grew, conditions were often difficult on the staff.

“It was tough in the early days. I remember getting phone calls from banks about making payments. Stuff like that. Trying to pass the phone off like a hot potato. Nobody wanted to take the call.”

Leadership was also feeling the pressure.

“It could be hard. Jane was tough. She was passionate and cared about this place a lot. She either got along with you or she didn’t. If you brought your heart and cared about the patients, you did well here.”

And if you didn’t, well, the unemployment office was just a short drive away.

Years later, providence stepped in in a horrific, mind-numbing way.

On August 29, 2003, a plane crash near Penticton, B.C. killed Ferguson, her niece, Kirsten Ferguson, Jane’s friend, John Collison, and their dog, Rascal. With patients to tend to, grief to model, and a sense of purpose, the staff was shaken but undeterred. They rallied and carried the Edgewood torch, with bumps at times, maintaining the standards that have kept Edgewood treatment center at the top of addiction treatment in Canada for almost 24 years.

Ferguson has never been forgotten. Her fingerprints are everywhere. In promotional material. In the program structure. In the way feedback is given. Staff mention her name almost daily. More tangibly, three years ago, a major building was erected on the Edgewood campus in Ferguson’s name, housing extended care patients and family program attendees.

Meanwhile, Willgress has become Supervisor of the admissions team, a squad that has grown in accordance with the success Edgewood has had in the business of helping addicts. When she started, the department officially consisted on one man, Tom Hall, who has since passed away. Over the years, it grew to five people fighting over two phones as the building expanded from 42 beds to its current 80. Today, seven staff comprise the admissions team, each hand-picked by Willgress and other senior managers for the important frontline job of answering admission calls.

The standard for being hired into the admissions department remains battle-tested: be a current staff member with compassion and good listening skills.

“We always consider people coming onto our admissions team who are a mixture of recovery and not-in-recovery. People who are very compassionate. They are probably well-liked around Edgewood, and could have a conversation with someone on the phone easily. Just friendly, warm, empathetic people. That’s who we try to choose to come in to this department.”

As for Willgress, she says she has evolved so much as a person as a result of working in the House of Miracles, the nickname many of Edgewood’s thousands of alumni use to describe their alma mater.

“I think I get out of it more than I put into it, actually,” with an almost-look of guilt. “I learn lots. I’m better at my job now, obviously, but I think I’m a better partner, a better friend, a better parent because I’ve learned lots here. I’ve learned, basically, accountability, to set boundaries. Hopefully I’ve passed that on raising my children. But, I find that I get more out of my job than I give.”

Willgress’ level of humility is not lost on her colleagues in the building, either.

“She’s so loyal and dependable. She’s a foundation block at Edgewood,” says Clinical Director Elizabeth Loudon. “She’s one of those people [who] I know I can always go to with an incoming patient issue and we will solve it. She’ll think about how to help this person, how to get them in, while protecting Edgewood in every step that she takes. She’s amazing.”

Nearly 24 years after her arrival, Edgewood is certainly all grown up. The Edgewood Health Network now includes residential treatment centers in Nanaimo, Toronto and Montreal. Clinics across the country. Programs and clinicians specializing in areas once unheard of. Trauma. Sex addiction. Eating disorders. Gaming. Gambling. Long gone are the days of solely alcoholics, replaced by those with complex addictions, poly-addicted, or struggling with a host of co-occurring disorders.

Though the EHN’s employee ranks have grown to over 300 across the country, Willgress says she still very much sees the heart in the staff trying to help those on the other end of the phone, and patients wandering the halls of the treatment centre trying to face what has become of their lives. Those patients and those pleas for help remain as desperate as ever, in her mind.

“The calls are the same, but I think we get a lot sicker patients, more diagnoses than we did before. Years ago, I remember when we were [admitting a patient] on crystal meth. We were, like, ‘What the heck is crystal meth?’ Someone from California was coming up, and many of us didn’t even know what that was,” she says. “Back then, it was mostly alcohol, marijuana and, maybe, prescription pills. It was very odd if we saw a, say, 42-year-old doing cocaine. There probably were plenty of them out there, but coming to treatment? No.”

“Now we have a full medical team. So, we are really cautious about looking at records, making sure that we can really help someone if they come in. Now we actually have diagnosis, and people who are seeing, or have seen, psychiatrists or other clinicians. Whether it is for eating disorders, bipolar, depression, anxiety, or hospital stays.”

But, in 2018, if the problem of mental health and addiction in society is more complex, the solution remains the same. Good treatment.

“I look around, I still see the heart. Yes, I see there are a lot of people. I see that, because we have licensing and accreditation now, there are a lot more procedures you have to follow. A lot more guidelines. But, it works because they bring their hearts. They really, really care about each patient that comes here. They really want them to get well. That’s what I think. They go above and beyond to keep someone here, to help someone here. I still see that in the building,” she says.

And, without doubt, she is the heart and soul of the department.

“She’s a great boss,” says Scott Bascom, an admissions department member for over 11 years. “She’s got a phenomenal memory, too. She can remember a call from years ago. Someone calls back six years later and she’ll be, like, ‘I remember you. Didn’t your uncle do this or that?’ She’s great like that.”

Chris Willgress’ loyalty, humility and dedication to her staff, the facility and, most importantly, to the patients and alumni shines through in her regular attendance at Cake Night, a monthly gathering of Edgewood patients, past and present, who come to accept tokens/medallions signifying their time in recovery. Though not a mandatory function, many staff members choose to give up their time to watch as patients they know or remember from years ago show up in a gathering of the Edgewood clan, so to speak. It only makes sense that she sees the finished product.

“I’ve gone to a lot of Cake Nights in the years I’ve been here,” says Willgress with a nod. “It’s nice to see people doing well. But, it also reinforces that there are a lot of people who come through who don’t follow their Aftercare Plan and don’t do well, too.”

“There are people you forget, and on Cake Night you see them again. Sometimes it’s people you don’t think are going to make it. They come back and they’ve got their year cake! There’s so much gratification there. It hits you in the heart.”

“So, in that sense, I go for myself. But I also go for the old timers who don’t know anybody who works here anymore. I go for them. They look out and they don’t know anybody. I feel sad for them. So, while they’re sharing at the microphone, I’ll wave. I’m here! Or I’ll go up to them afterwards. I don’t want to make a show. But they like to see someone they know. I do it out of duty. Maybe there is someone who doesn’t know anybody, but they’ll remember me. I want them to feel that they are still a big part of Edgewood. Because they really are.”