Face of the opioid crisis

By Carole Fawcett

If we work together, we can help to create an educated awareness concerning the opioid crisis helping to remove the stigma and being more open to reaching out and helping.

We can change the one-sided narrative and start a dialogue with more understanding and compassion.

The blaming and shaming attitude of the “just say no” movement (Nancy Reagan, circa 1986) still prevails. It makes those who use feel even worse than they already do – which may be why they use drugs in the first place, to numb the feelings of unworthiness. 

Almost 1,500 people died in B.C. of an opioid overdose in the past year, according to the provincial government.  232 of those people were in the area that Interior Health covers. 

These numbers surpassed vehicle accident deaths and also the deaths of those who contracted AIDS and died in 1991. (at the height of that health crisis) Just as a frame of reference, in 1991 in Canada, 1,800 people died of AIDS — across Canada.

So you can see from that comparison of numbers that the deaths from opioid overdose is very high, as it reflects numbers in British Columbia only.

The Accident

Nancy was seriously injured in a boating accident in 2008.

She had unknowingly broken her back and already had the pre-existing condition of spinal stenosis. (Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spaces in the spine and can frequently put pressure on the nerves that travel through the spine).

The first physician she saw did not physically examine her, or send her for x-rays. She was given a prescription for 60 Percocet (an opioid pain reliever) along with muscle relaxants. 

Two weeks later, having finished the prescription, Nancy decided to see a different doctor. as she found that she was still in an inordinate amount of pain. She was given a steroid injection and another prescription for 120 Percocets.

Two weeks after that, her pain was at the same level and she was then dependent on Percocet to be able to move enough to get out of bed, drive her two young children to school as well as their extra-curricular activities. 

She worked part time, took care of the children and the home while her husband worked out of town. It was daunting to try and function with the level of pain she was living with.

"It took me three Percocets to get out of bed and another three to get to Physiotherapy by 10 a.m., Nancy said. “I was using 15 Percocet per day on average. I visited the doctor once a week with not much difference in the level of pain. It was debilitating.”

Nancy found another doctor and demanded that she have an MRI to see what was going on. She learned she had broken her back in five places, had herniated discs in three other places, as well as having nerve compression in her spinal column. 

While it was a relief to finally have an answer, she was told she was not a surgical candidate due to where the worst damage was located in her spine, plus she smoked cigarettes at that time. 

Nancy then spoke with a pharmacist to see if a medication change may help. He told her that he was very concerned with the high dose of Percocet she was taking and suggested she ask the doctor for a longer acting pain medication, Oxycontin. 

She followed through with this suggestion and was given a prescription for three  80 mg of oxycontin per day, using Percocet only when absolutely necessary.

While her pain did not lessen, she began to improve in physiotherapy, although she and the physiotherapist still felt frustrated with the level of pain she was experiencing.

This continued for eight months. Nancy’s behaviour was changing too. Her fatigue from the medication was so great that she fell asleep during her daughter’s elementary Christmas concert.

She went on short-term disability, couldn’t keep up with her social commitments and she began to notice that she was having memory lapses in the middle of the day. The impact of the medication was becoming more and more noticeable.

Finally. a close friend of Nancy’s called her on her drug use, when she once again fell asleep in her salon chair as the friend was styling her hair. She pointed out that Nancy had become a different person and pushed her to learn what the medication was doing to her. 

Nancy saw a doctor who was filling in for her doctor, and who, upon reviewing her medications stated:

“If you were to get hit by a train when you leave this office, there are not enough pain meds the hospital could give you; your tolerance must be so high.”

“I was shocked,” Nancy said. “What was she saying?  That I, the perfect picture of a suburban house-wife and mother, was an addict?” 

It was difficult to comprehend. The doctor then told Nancy she had two choices to make: 

  • taper off of the oxycontin, which would take a few months and have some undesirable side effects
  • go on a methadone program.

Nancy was shocked. “Me? Go on Methadone? Wasn’t that just for junkies?”

She learned that methadone is a tool to help people who use drugs, (pharmaceutical drugs included) to use less drugs and hopefully cease altogether.  She was horrified to be one of “those” people. The realization was hard, as it caused her to re-examine her beliefs about “drug addicts.”  

Nancy chose to taper off and, as predicted by the doctor, it wasn’t easy. But she is proud to share that she did.  It has been approximately 10 years since the ‘missing’ year (as she explains).   

She began to become involved in her community and sports again, as well as returning to a full-time academic program and working. She was also able to repair any relationships that had been damaged by her addiction.

“It has become a speck in the rear view mirror of my life. A life I live fully and completely. I am grateful for the opportunity to have a choice in my physical well-being again,” Nancy said.

Carole Fawcett wrote an in-depth article for Vernon Shares, Community Dialogue Project on the opioid crisis, of which this has been a part. [email protected]http://www.wordaffair.com


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