Skip to content
Image of Lisa T
Lisa T.
Mental Health + Substance Use

Finding wellness, one day at a time

by Kris Wallace


Lisa was inspired to become a cardiac care nurse after her father died of a heart attack while she was in nursing school. She came to the heart department at St. Paul’s, fresh out of school, with a passion that can only come from a deep, personal connection to the work. Within a year, she was also coming to work with an addiction to narcotics.

It started with a volleyball injury and a prescription for painkillers, but Lisa believes the root cause was undiagnosed mental illness. “I didn’t know how to deal with being awkward or quirky. And I didn’t know how to handle stress, fear, and anxiety. Using narcotics was a way to feel normal.”

“I was caught, and sent for treatment. Which turned out to be a good thing,” Lisa says. But her journey was far from over.

“I was four years clean and going through a crazy time in my life. I was in a new, stressful position with huge learning curve. My then-fiancé had just left for a year-long internship abroad. I had to move because my building was infested with bedbugs. I fell into a depression that I wasn’t even aware of until much, much later.”

One day, a patient was discharged and left unused narcotics on his table. “I didn’t even think about it; I picked them up. I didn’t want to use, but I used anyway. I knew I needed help.”

Lisa went to rehab for three months and, for the first time, also received treatment for her mental health. When she got back, she started seeing Dr. Paul Whitehead at the Centre for Practitioner Renewal (a truly unique resource at Providence Health Care offering in-house psychological services for health care providers).

“Trying to get clean is so scary. There’s the process of detoxing; fear of losing your job; fear of repercussions; guilt and shame…. My mental health was all over the place. Dr. Whitehead saved my life. He really, really did.”

Lisa also gives a lot of credit to Providence Health Care and her managers for their support, which included helping Lisa move to a position where she wasn’t exposed to narcotics. She has thrived for the last seven years developing surgical quality improvement programs. “Considering everything that happened, I have been treated with more respect, compassion, care, and love than I could ever have imagined.”

Gradually, Lisa’s life began to stabilize. She met the man who would become her husband. They had a baby. She came through a debilitating bout of post-partum depression. Things were going so well, they decided to have a second child.

Just weeks into her second pregnancy, Lisa became lightheaded on her way to work. This had happened before but, this time, it didn’t go away. She went for a cardiac stress test and was admitted to the hospital on the spot. She had a rare, life-threatening congenital heart condition. Over the next 12 months, Lisa had open heart surgery, delivered a healthy baby girl, and cracked her still-healing chest when her older daughter playfully jumped on her.

Lisa is beyond grateful to Dr. Whitehead for giving her the tools to deal with the onslaught of emotional and physical challenges. And to the Pain Clinic at St. Paul’s for helping her manage the acute pain of surgery and the chronic pain of being re-injured with techniques that include physiotherapy, massage therapy, guided meditation, and mindfulness.

Lisa is amazingly upbeat considering everything she’s been through. “I was born for this,” she says. “I had to learn to get through hard times so I can show other people how to do it.” She may not be practicing in a clinical setting any more, but there is absolutely no doubt that Lisa is still very much a nurse.