Fentanyl is at the centre of an opioid overdose crisis spreading across Canada and while hundreds have lost their lives to the powerful painkiller, some Canadians say they need the medication to survive.
Sandy has Crohn’s disease, scoliosis, several hernias and a degenerative disc disease in her back and uses fentanyl patches to manage her chronic pain.
“I’m in pain every day and sometimes it gets really bad where I don’t want to get out of bed,” she says from her Toronto home.
“But basically with the medication, it helps calm everything down. But at times I’m in so much pain that I don’t want to do anything.”
The 50-year-old, whose last name Global News has agreed not to reveal, also uses Percocet to offset painful digestive issues caused by her condition, which sometimes require hospital visits and surgery.
She doesn’t take the maximum dosage of fentanyl, but says the combination of pain medications allow her to function normally.
“You have to follow the doctors’ instructions to use the fentanyl patch, because if you use more than you’re supposed to, you could go into a drug overdose,” she says.
“We’re realizing through the news that a lot of people are dying from fentanyl.”
Sandy says she is prescribed 10 fentanyl patches per month and must return her used patches to her local pharmacy in order to receive a new dose.
Without fentanyl, she says, she would be much worse off.
“I would be in a lot more pain than I want to be in. It just helps,” she says, adding that she takes the lowest dose available at 25 micrograms.
“The thing is, the fentanyl is a lot easier because it’s giving me three days of medication that I need because the pain I’m in all the time, I don’t like it.”
“I’m not saying that I enjoy the medication, but I enjoy the fact that it’s there to help me function normally.”
Sandy says if the medication weren’t available to her, she wouldn’t leave her home and instead “curl up in a ball and just stay there.” She notes the pain will only increase as she ages.
“It’s going to get worse. I know that. So basically right now, it’s just being controlled like this, which I’m glad for because I don’t have to keep popping pills,” she says.
“It just helps a lot.”
A family devastated by fentanyl
Leigh Chapman’s adopted older brother Brad was an outgoing, energetic father of three children with a “larger-than-life personality.”
Brad struggled with behavioural issues early in life and Chapman says that when their parents separated, he turned down a dark path.
“It was such a devastating emotional sort of trauma … it started his recreational drug use at that point,” she says.
“He was in and out of group homes and the Metro West Detention Centre and started experimenting with drugs. But he wasn’t addicted at that point.”
Brad was diagnosed with a brain tumour, but due to delays in the diagnosis he suffered from seizures, headaches and falls and was prescribed OxyContin to manage the pain.
“That was really the path of no return, because by the time he had this grueling brain surgery to remove the tumour, he was already Hepatitis C positive from injection drug use because he had been cut off his supply of OxyContin,” Chapman says.
“So that was the origin of his addiction. That was sort of where it started was prescribed medication.”
Chapman says Brad struggled to overcome his addiction and used methadone treatment, but it did not address the physiological pain he suffered from.
VIDEO: Experts warn of growing fentanyl crisis across Canada
“There was also no emotional support or counselling or anything like that so he immediately went back to using drugs again,” she says, adding she would occasionally see him panhandling downtown.
“It’s awful. It’s actually hard to describe to people, because I think people tend to walk by somebody who’s homeless and on the street. But for me, every single one of those people could be Brad.”
“It’s very traumatic and heartbreaking. It’s actually a bit surreal,” she adds. “It doesn’t feel normal to see your loved one who you grew up with and who you shared a house with on the street, dirty, panhandling and addicted.”
On Aug. 18, 2015, Brad died at the age of 43 from an overdose of what Chapman suspects was heroin laced with fentanyl – in an alley a few hundred metres from Toronto Public Health’s needle exchange program.
Chapman believes police should have more training regarding opioid overdoses and the use of the life-saving medication naloxone, which is not currently carried by any Toronto police officers.
“For Brad, it was a matter of life and death,” she said. “If the police had been able to administer naloxone, there’s a high chance that Brad would have been here today.”
Chapman says supervised safe injection sites could be the solution to saving lives amid the fentanyl crisis. Ontario committed to funding three supervised safe injection sites in Toronto last month.
“I think it will be empowering for drug users to be able to go and inject safely in a health care facility and I think it is a natural extension of harm reduction services,” she said.
“We have to keep people alive long enough to help them.”
Chapman says that every time she hears of another fentanyl overdose death, it takes a toll on her and her loved ones.
“It’s very frustrating for us as a family to know that fentanyl is here now and more people are dying and there’s this slow response,” she says.
“The response doesn’t measure the urgency of the situation. So that’s very frustrating for us because these deaths are preventable.”
While Chapman says fentanyl does have its benefits in helping patients manage chronic pain, it’s the illicit fentanyl market and its use as a cutting agent in street drugs that is fuelling the overdose crisis.
“Somebody may be a cocaine user – well, there’s now fentanyl in that cocaine so now they’re automatically an opioid user,” she says.
“It’s in everything – in all of the drugs on the street now.”
Chapman says Brad wanted nothing more than to be a father to his three kids, but the addiction robbed her family of that opportunity.
“He wanted to reconnect with them – he was so proud of them, and he wanted to be there for them. And it was the one thing he couldn’t do,” she said through tears.
“It’s really hard because his kids know that he loved them and he couldn’t be there. He couldn’t be there for them.”
With files from Madeline Campbell