August 31, 2018 5:16 pm
Updated: August 31, 2018 6:53 pm

‘The answer is to love them’: Winnipeggers remember loved ones lost to overdose

Arlene Last-Kolb holds a message from the provincial government recognizing International Overdose Awareness Day.

Diana Foxall/Global News

Families gathered at the courtyard Friday at City Hall to remember loved ones who passed away, and to encourage change that could save lives.

The day marked the third time International Overdose Awareness Day took place in Winnipeg.

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“I lost my son three years ago to an overdose — an accidental overdose,” Susan Engstrom said. Her son Jesse was 25 when he died.

“The loss, it can’t be put into words. It’s an unbearable loss for our family,” she said.

“We tried for a long time to get help as a family and individually.”

“Jesse overdosed a year before he passed away and ended up in an intensive care unit. A couple of days, later he was released from the intensive care unit after they took the breathing tube out and gave him a shot of fentanyl and sent him home with us.”

She said the family begged for support after getting Jesse back from the hospital, but didn’t know where to turn.

Engstrom’s story is like that of countless others who have lost loved ones to overdose, and she was one of many people wearing purple to bring awareness to the issue.

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The resources to treat addiction and the multitude of complications that come with it are lacking and hard to come by, she said.

“There is a stigma, a terrible stigma, attached to the use of opiates and those kinds of drugs,” Engstrom said.

She said she wants to make it clear that the issue doesn’t lie solely with people using street drugs.

“It’s not just the people that look like they have nobody that loves them,” she said.

“We’re losing doctors, we’re losing lawyers, we’re losing somebody from every walk of life and it’s getting out of hand. It’s a huge loss.”

WATCH: ‘We need to talk about it’: Public perception about drug overdose is shifting, say police

Naloxone kits

Arlene Last-Kolb lost her son, who was also named Jessie, four years ago.

“Jessie went out to a house in St. James and he passed away,” she said. “[His friends] didn’t call for help — they cleaned house, got rid of the drugs, the phones, and then they went to another house and called. So by the time the ambulance got there, it was too late.”

Last-Kolb said some things have changed since then. Jessie died of an overdose after ingesting fentanyl unintentionally. But back in 2014, no one was carrying Naloxone around, which blocks the effects of opioids and gives paramedics more time to treat overdoses.

“There was no help. My son came home and he was clean for a year — he was doing very well,” she said. “He worked, he had a job, but for so many families I’ve talked to, there is no help, no help available for them.”

“And every one of the children asked for help. And these were all children that were working, had jobs, animals, and they needed help and it just wasn’t available for them.”

Last-Kolb said part of the problem is that people taking drugs don’t necessarily know what they’re taking. Drugs are increasingly contaminated with fentanyl — as was the case with the drugs her son took that led to his overdose.

But more than that, she said there needs to be more resources available for families who are trying to get their loved ones help.

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Last-Kolb said the Bruce Oake Recovery Centre is much-needed in Winnipeg, and she said she hopes to see a facility to treat addiction in every neighbourhood in the city.

“I heard (a saying) recently — instead of pulling all of these people, these bodies out of the river, we should go back down the river and find out why they’re jumping in,” Engstrom said.

“If Jesse broke his ankle, we were 100 per cent — we knew where to go, what to do and we were treated and helped and supported,” she continued. “But when we said Jesse’s not managing well in school, that was the start.”

“That was the start, and we should have been able to do something then.”

Both Engstrom and Last-Kolb said they feel there needs to be a change in attitude towards how society deals with people struggling with addiction.

“The number one thing we need to do with addicts is love them. And we need to treat them with respect and dignity, even when they’re at their lowest,” Engstrom said.

“Tough love, we thought that was the answer, that’s not it. The answer is to love them and treat them like they’re our sons and our daughters and our sisters and our mothers.”

WATCH: Tempers flare at Bruce Oake Recovery Centre meeting

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