Extending a life line: Pharmacist overcomes addiction to found peer-support network for recovering professionals

Updated on July 16, 2021 (Originally posted on February 3, 2020) The Tablet
Nathan McLean

Pharmacist Nathan McLean founded Obsidian Support Services B.C., a peer-support network for professionals with safety sensitive jobs, like pharmacists, who are recovering from substance dependence.

By Michael Mui


For years, pharmacist Nathan McLean avoided the corner of East 1st and Commercial Drive in Vancouver. In the northeast corner of the intersection is a century-old building, home to The Drive Pharmacy, a small, but busy, pharmacy in the heart of the city’s “Little Italy” neighbourhood. 

It was the memories that kept him away. The last time he stepped foot in the building was during the early years of its opening. Back then, he was the store’s first pharmacy manager. But it was a position he quickly found himself unfit for, as a growing opiate addiction began stealing his life. 

McLean tried to seek help. He knew the addiction would cost him his job and likely the relationships he had with his colleagues, but he didn’t really know where to turn. He didn’t know anyone who had gone through addiction, never mind trying to seek advice from a colleague in health care who had gone through the same. 

That was seven years ago. 

“What I wanted most was to be able to talk to somebody from the beginning who had been through the process and had successfully made it through, come out the other side and was in good shape. Because I didn’t believe at the time it could be done,” says McLean.

In the end, he learned it could be done. After recovering from his addiction, he founded Obsidian Support Services B.C., a peer-support network for professionals with safety sensitive jobs, like pharmacists, who are recovering from addiction. 

This past July, McLean found himself back at the steps of the Commercial Drive pharmacy he had avoided for so long. As he explored the familiar setting and met with The Drive Pharmacy’s current pharmacy manager, Elizier Chin, McLean realized his anxiety at returning to the location was perhaps unwarranted. In many ways, he has more than succeeded. He even became the voice he was searching for during those initial years of recovery. 

Elizer Chin

Nathan McLean meets The Drive Pharmacy's current pharmacy manager, Elizier Chin.

His business is a peer-support based program. Common among safety sensitive professions such as law enforcement, health care and heavy equipment operators are strictly regulated processes for rehabilitating employees who struggled with substance abuse. Typically, this involves monitoring over an extended period to ensure there are no relapses, with routine drug tests, meetings, and penalties should the recovering patient relapse. For pharmacists, the monitoring period during recovery is three to five years, and McLean and his team help conduct that monitoring using regular online Caduceus sessions—recovery groups for health-care professionals—where he checks in with his clients. 

Dr. Mandy Manak, a physician specializing in addiction medicine, works with McLean and refers clients to the Caduceus groups. The advantage of having someone such as McLean lead the groups, she says, is how the recovering patients are less likely to be stigmatized by someone who has also been through addiction themselves. All of Obsidian’s sessions are led by a health-care professional who has been in recovery for at least three years.

“I think Nathan’s twist on it is: nobody knows how hard it is when you go back to work,” Manak says. “I’d be lying to you if I said, if you were a pharmacist in recovery from opiate-use disorder, that it was going to be easy for you to find a job.

“For the first year, you can’t handle narcotics. They can’t be in the store by themselves. They can’t open and close. They can’t receive shipments of narcotics. It’s going to be hard to practice. So you really have to put those supports in place.” 

Chin, the current pharmacy manager at The Drive Pharmacy, agrees that many pharmacists, despite familiarity with medications, have little firsthand experience with addiction. But like other health professions, the risk, and the access to narcotics, is there.

“As a pharmacist, we understand the pharmacokinetics behind addiction, but it’s a very personal struggle so I think it’s very difficult to truly say that you understand firsthand about this condition,” Chin says. “You hear about physicians or ER doctors who have addictions to pain medications, but also pharmacists do have potential opportunities where you could easily fall into addiction.”

For McLean, it’s essential he continues to try to reach those health professionals who are trying to seek help, but don’t have anyone else to talk to. 

“I didn’t know how to reach out, and that was a big problem,” he says. “It was a hard road, but hopefully, if there’s some people out there who are on the fence, or they’re looking for help and they’re not sure where to go, maybe I can help.” 

To learn more about Obsidian, visit their website obsidiansupport.ca

This article is featured in The Tablet. The Tablet features pharmacy and industry news, profiles on B.C. pharmacists, information on research developments and new products.