The date of Nov. 26, 2013, is forever etched into the mind of Aidan Hughes-Toal.
That’s the day that his twin brother died of a drug overdose in Edmonton, an event that convinced him to radically change his own life of drug addiction, and help others as well.
After spending time at the Cedars at Cobble Hill recovery centre in 2014 learning to deal with his drug demons, Hughes-Toal now works in admissions at the centre spreading the word to new patients about just how wonderful a drug-free life can be.
At a time when B.C. is experiencing more deaths due to illegal drug overdoses than ever before, with 128 in November alone.
That’s more than in any other single month in the province’s history, Hughes-Toal’s story is a cautionary tale for those who use illegal drugs, either habitually or recreationally.
Hughes-Toal said he began smoking marijuana and drinking when he was just 14, for which he ended up getting kicked out of high school, and then quickly moved on to cocaine, ecstasy and oxycodone.
Then heroin entered his drug scene, and when fentanyl began getting mixed with it by the dealers, his already fragile life took an even further downward spiral.
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine, but can be up to 100 times more potent and have devastating results on drug users.
The drug has become increasingly available in B.C. over the past three years, and is being incorporated with other drugs, including cocaine and heroin, which has largely resulted in the current spike in drug overdoses.
“I didn’t know the heroin I was using was mixed with fentanyl at first, but the mixture was much more euphoric and I got hooked,” Hughes-Toal said.
“When I was just doing heroin, I was still able to function on a daily basis and deal with things, but when fentanyl was mixed in, I would just pass out.”
Hughes-Toal said he was aware that fentanyl was playing a large part in the swarm of drug overdoses in the province, but he, and many of his drug-addicted colleagues, couldn’t stop using it.
“In fact, if we heard that someone had passed away using it, then many of us wanted it even more because we figured that it must be good,” he said.
“Your body and mind become very dependent on it very quickly. Then there’s the low self-esteem, the shame and the guilt, the feeling that you’re not good enough for your family, and these drugs become a way to escape your life.”
But when his brother died, Hughes-Toal decided he needed some radical changes in his life.
He said breaking the habit was the hardest task he has ever undertaken.
“For seven days I sweated, vomited, had diarrhoea, insomnia and shook the whole time,” Hughes-Toal said.
“That’s what gets to people and one of the reasons why they have so much difficulty giving up these drugs. After that, I spent three months as a patient at Cedars at Cobble Hill and returned two years later as a staff member. I’m now trying my best to help those in similar circumstances.”
According to health officials, an average of four people a day died of drug overdoses in B.C. in November, and December is not looking any better so far.
Overall, there has been approximately 755 overdose deaths in the province since the beginning of the year, a 70 per cent increase from the same period last year.
The Ministry of Health officially labelled the issue as a public-health emergency in B.C. last spring, making it the first province in Canada to take this kind of action in response to drug overdoses.
Although specific up-to-date records for the Cowichan Valley are currently not available, Dr. Paul Hasselback, medical health officer for central Vancouver Island, reported to local governments in July that there have been at least 16 deaths in the Cowichan Valley up to that time due to drug overdoses since 2012.
But Hasselback said the number of overdose deaths across the Island, including in the Cowichan Valley, have been higher than usual recently, and fentanyl has contributed significantly to the problem.
Fentanyl has been detected in approximately 60 per cent of all illicit drug deaths in the province during the past year.
The growing availability of the drug locally was highlighted when one of the largest fentanyl busts in B.C. in recent years took place after a man from the Cowichan Valley was caught in October with a kilogram of the drug in his vehicle on the Island Highway on his way to Duncan.
The mobile-health team from the Nanaimo and Area Resource Services for Families that visits the Valley every Tuesday is also expressing concerns about the increasing number of drug overdoses in the region.
NARSF provides harm reduction services, including the provision of sterile-injection equipment for intravenous drug users, and training in the use of naloxone, which blocks the effects of opioids like fentanyl, to local organizations.
NARSF director Gord Coté acknowledged that it’s the “most challenging time” he has seen in dealing with drug overdoses in his 30-year medical career.
He said the best strategies to deal with the increasing problem is for all stakeholders, including police, social services and medical authorities, to continue their “sustainable efforts” to work together in their ongoing attempts to bring it under control.
“Educating people about fentanyl, drug use and overdoses is one of the best strategies, as well as ensuring drug users have regular access to 911 services and naloxone,” Coté said.
“There’s also safety in numbers and we encourage users to not take their drugs alone. There’s a lot of work being done on this issue and many have been saved thanks to it, but there are still lots of challenges because it’s such a big issue.”
In fact, Health Minister Terry Lake announced on Dec. 19 that the government is investing $5 million in the BC Emergency Health Services to help deal with the drug-overdose crisis.
While most of the funding will go to areas where the crisis is the worst, like Vancouver and Surrey, it’s hoped that some will be earmarked to assist local paramedics and dispatchers respond more efficiently to overdoses.
Lake said the government is responding to the needs of the province’s paramedics and emergency personnel who are “feeling tremendous pressure” with their response to the increasing number of drug overdoses.
“We know they have saved thousands of lives in this crisis and we are making sure they are supported in this daunting task with needed resources,” Lake said.
“We are working with many others, including harm reduction and addictions experts, police, the coroner and the federal government to find solutions. But, in the meantime, we must make sure patients get the care they need.”
Hasselback said, however, that he’s concerned that the number of overdose deaths continues to rise even as society mobilizes to effectively deal with it, taking a toll on individuals, their families and the communities they live in.
“We’re doing all the right things and we have saved lives, but we don’t seem to be stemming the tide on this crisis,” he said.
“There is no one solution and we all have to work on a number of fronts to deal with it. But my colleagues and I remain quite concerned. We’re working to the best of our capabilities, but it’s still a public-health emergency in that it’s more than we can manage at this time.”