Rick Sam is a leading expert on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
But it took 40 years until the Whitehorse man was asked to speak on the issue.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to come to a conference and talk to people like you,” Sam said to a group of people gathered at the Old Fire Hall last week for FASD Day.
Sam addressed a topic that was close to home for many in the room – living with FASD.
“I’ve lived with it every day of my life,” he said.
“Don’t be scared of people like me.”
Sam grew up in foster homes where he was physically and sexually abused.
“It was a total nightmare,” he said.
His life felt like “a revolving door.”
“I don’t always think clearly,” he said.
“And because I don’t always think clearly, I make foolish mistakes. And I live with those mistakes.”
Twice, Sam ended up in the justice system.
“It’s no game or picnic,” he told the audience.
“It’s a really scary experience for people like me.”
Pelly Crossing public health nurse Wenda Bradley goes to court to assist patients suffering from FASD.
After the sentencing, “nine times out of 10 they’d turn to me and say, ‘What happened?’” said Bradley, who was part of the forum.
“They wouldn’t know if they were free or going to jail.”
Even going to a doctor with a simple ear infection can be too much for someone struggling with FASD.
A fast diagnosis mentioning inner ear inflammation, followed by directions to get a prescription and take two pills in the morning and two at night, is not as simple as it sounds, said Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society of Yukon support worker Mary Amerongen.
Even though most people with FASD have a normal IQ, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to understand things most people take for granted, she said.
“Because alcohol has created gaps in their brains, putting things in sequence, generalizing, prioritizing and seeing the big picture can be very difficult.”
In Pelly, Bradley works with parents with FASD who are raising young children.
Even getting the kids to daycare on time can be a challenge, she said.
People with FASD often have a hard time sleeping, and when they do fall asleep, rising to an alarm is next to impossible. But lots of daycares will only accept kids at certain hours.
“So if they get there at 10 a.m. they may be turned away,” she said.
A fulfilling day for someone with FASD may be waking up and having breakfast, getting the kids to daycare on time, then doing an activity, having lunch, then another activity before dinner, said Bradley.
“It’s not a very dramatic day, but it’s a day with nothing going wrong.”
To help young families with FASD, Bradley wants to set up supportive housing in Pelly.
“You basically wrap another family around that family,” she said.
Or a family could live in a house beside another family, so if they were having a tough time, the kids would still get fed at night, she said.
Bradley gets her patients to appointments, offers advice and answers questions.
“I get a lot of calls asking me if cocaine will affect their pregnancy,” she said.
“Or, can a woman who’s breastfeeding do cocaine?”
Bradley spends a great deal of time drinking tea with her clients – listening.
“If something’s not working, it’s usually me that’s not listening” she said.
There isn’t a simple answer, or one solution for FASD, said FASSY executive director Brooke Alsbury, who put together the forum.
“Sometimes we hope to find one piece that will solve the puzzle, but we’re dealing with individuals, so we need a collaborative approach.”
Alsbury’s panel included members from the Child Development Centre, alcohol and drug services, the Department of Education, as well as Bradley and Sam.
“We have to learn to deal with (FASD),” said Sam.
“Because it’s in society and it’s not going to go away.”
Sam does not blame his mother for his problems.
“It’s a hard challenge for a mother, and we need to support mothers who have the temptation to drink,” he said.
Sam doesn’t have any children of his own, but he has a “furball” at home.
“And it’s a challenge having a pet,” he said.
“It’s like having a child.”
Contact Genesee Keevil at