Amid Canada’s overdose crisis, grandparents are becoming parents again
Chad Robbins died on Nov. 2, 2017. He was discovered by his five-year-old daughter after a fatal fentanyl overdose in his Orillia, Ont., home.
He was 32.
“I cry a lot. Every day. It’s only been a year so it’s hard,” his mother, Pam Robbins, told Global News. “I look into my granddaughter’s face and thank God I have her. Because I have a part of my son.”
Pam Robbins remembers her son as an athlete of “every sport you could think of” who became a skilled construction worker in Simcoe County, and later a loving father.
Throughout his adult life Chad would struggle with addiction, making multiple trips to rehabilitation centres, but always supported by his family. In his 20s, Chad began using cocaine and, after suffering a serious injury falling from a roof at a work site, a doctor prescribed him Percocet and oxycodone.
Eventually, he became addicted.
He died just days before leaving for treatment at a rehab centre, and was found steps from his bathroom after overdosing from a combination of cocaine, morphine and fentanyl.
“[His daughter] tried to open his eyes to see if he would wake up,” Pam said. “She’s just all of a sudden realized daddy’s not coming home.”
For his sister Kailea, watching her brother struggle to stay clean while bringing a daughter into the world was heartbreaking.
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“It’s devastating for anyone,” she said. “You look at this little girl, his daughter, and to see, how could that be not enough for you to change? It’s devastating.”
The Simcoe-Muskoka area of Ontario has been ravaged by powerful opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil. In 2017, the area saw the rate of emergency hospital visits for opioid overdoses rise to 77.1 visits per 100,000 people, significantly higher than the Ontario rate of 54.
Overdose deaths in the Simcoe-Muskoka area more than doubled from 2013-2017 to 81 per year.
The overdose crisis is not only killing people in record numbers, it’s reshaping the makeup of families where grandparents are now becoming primary caregivers again.
Pam and her husband Dave co-parent with Tayja’s mom, taking care of her on weekends and after school while her mother works.
“I get very tired. Fortunately, I have help, we’re not far. They give me breaks here and there,” Pam said of her two daughters Kailea and Krista, who live in Barrie.
“It’s hard because obviously my parents are supposed to be grandparents,” Krista said. “You don’t know what to do, because you have this little six year old who is traumatized.”
Less than a half-hour drive away, Maureen Way and her husband were looking at retirement and had just bought a new house overlooking the west side of Lake Couchiching.
But in the fall of 2016 everything changed; their 32-year-old daughter Lindsay overdosed, leaving behind two children, a girl and a boy, who are now 11 and 13, respectively.
“Lindsay was a beautiful girl. She was a very outgoing personality — always had a huge smile on her face,” Way told Global News at her home near Orillia. “When she entered a room, you knew she was there. She just had this energy about her.”
Beginning at 15, Lindsay grappled with addiction that started with the rave culture when the family lived in North Toronto.
“We were always in rescue mode. We were waiting by the phone,” Way said. “Lindsay had herself in and out of detox centers. A couple of short-term rehab programs. She was always trying to be well and just could not quite beat it.”
When Lindsay turned 20, Maureen Way received a phone call. She told me that she was expecting my granddaughter.”
“It turned out to be a beautiful miracle because she came home and she was sober while she finished out her pregnancy,” she said. “Then she gave birth to this amazingly beautiful child, and she was well for a while.”
Lindsay was addicted to ecstasy and other drugs into her late 20s, but her mother believes she slipped through the cracks of the province’s fractured mental health care system.
“It was the mental health problem that started it,” she said. “My daughter wasn’t diagnosed with bi-polar disorder until she was 28 years old.”
In September 2016, she received a phone call late in the evening from an unidentified man saying he was with Lindsay and she was unconscious.
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She remembers the phone ringing at the hotel where she worked at about 10 p.m.
“I have your daughter here. She’s unconscious; I can’t get her to wake up,” the man on the phone told her, she said.
“I said, ‘If you can’t get her to wake up, get her to the hospital now.’ He hung up the phone.” Way remembers screaming into the phone. “Sometime in the next 45 minutes she showed up at the hospital. She had no vital signs.”
Lindsay would be in a hospital for five days before being declared dead.
“When we realized she was gone and we were saying goodbye — the two little ones reached across to either side of the bed and grabbed each other’s hand and said goodbye to their mom,” Way said. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Now Way and her husband are full time parents again and helping two children navigate trauma.
“I take them to school, I make their lunches — their sports — it’s full time parenting,” she said.
All three children received counselling at the Seasons Centre for Grieving Children.
“That’s been the biggest saving grace from the get go, knowing the trauma she has suffered,” said Kailea, who believes there is a lack of community resources to deal with the overdose crisis.
Ontario’s Health Minister Christine Elliott declined to be interviewed for this series.
The Progressive Conservative government was widely criticized for its review of prevention sites, which ultimately found they help reduce drug-related deaths and lower the rate of public drug use.
In late October, the PCs announced they will spend just over $31 million a year to fund a maximum of 21 sites, now to be called “Consumption and Treatment” services sites.
“We know we don’t truly save a person’s life until we help them beat their addiction,” Elliott said in an email. “Our government’s overriding priority is to ensure that all efforts to combat opioid addiction are designed to introduce people into rehabilitation and that those struggling with addiction get the help they need.”
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