A drug is saving lives on Surrey streets – and Health Canada just made it available without a prescription. But as ‘Now’ reporter Amy Reid witnesses firsthand, even experienced drug users are not immune to the rash of overdoses striking the region. Click here to read her column.
Her voice pierces the air, her face crimson like the setting sun. She summons all her energy to scream.
Jeff’s gone limp on the pavement, heroin burning through his veins.
My stomach does a flip as I realize I interviewed this man just 21 days before.
“NARCAN!” the woman cries again.
It’s what he needs. He’s overdosing. Seconds are like minutes as hands fumble to plunge the needle in.
“Come on Jeff you can do it,” a second woman cries out.
“You’re not ready to go. Come on Jeff, not yet.”
The silence is agonizing as another reviving needle glides in.
His eyes flutter as a siren wails in the distance.
Jeff’s lucky this time. He’s flatlined before.
This drama played out on Whalley streets at least 10 times that day.
And it won’t be the last.
“People are dropping like crazy,” said a shaken Kutrina Blake.
Her voice is panicked, her breathing heavy.
Blake answered her phone moments after hitting someone with Narcan.
It’s a daily occurrence at the Whalley emergency shelter she manages on 135A Street.
She had to use three hits this time.
“I’m a calm person anyway and I don’t panic under stress. But my hands got all shaky,” said Blake. “They go very blue and they’re not breathing. I had a client helping me, she was giving him breaths because you want to keep oxygen going to their brain. Don’t want them to go brain dead.”
While she was scared the first time, Blake said she’s “gotten used to it.”
This was her seventh time.
“You go into tunnel vision.”
(Pictured: Shelter staff and street people help Jeff during his overdose.)
The Gateway emergency shelter and drop-in centre, operated by Lookout Emergency Aid Society, was the first non-profit organization to offer naloxone intervention in early 2014. By April 2015, 200 overdose reversals were credited to the organization.
Narcan kits contain the drug naloxone. Commonly referred to as an “overdose antidote,” it blocks opiate receptors in the nervous system.
The injectable medication is easily administered with minimal training. It’s believed to be safe. A healthy person given a dose of the drug won’t show any negative side affects, according to Fraser Health.
Through B.C.’s Take Home Naloxone Program, 488 overdoses have been reversed since 2012.
It’s saving lives, but many are still being lost.
Illicit drug overdose deaths have doubled in B.C. – and in Surrey – over the last decade.
From 2006 to 2015, the death toll in Surrey rose from 34 to 67 and from 229 to 465 provincially.
In the first two months of 2016, 16 people died in Surrey after overdosing. Across B.C.,
76 people lost their lives to drugs in January alone. That’s the largest number of drug deaths in one month in the past decade.
I met Jeff three weeks to the day before his latest overdose.
He sat nervously in the back of the Whalley shelter and revealed that by then, he’d already been hit with naloxone on three separate occasions.
The first time was half an hour after being kicked out of a recovery home.
Jeff spent two court-mandated months in a local zero-tolerance recovery house after being given the choice between that or jail time, he explained.
He was kicked out for using drugs.
“I told (the manager) how many times I actually used in the house because I was proud of myself,” said Jeff, pictured.
Fourteen times, he continued.
“Half an hour after I came down here after I got kicked out of the recovery house I picked up some down, and I got a friend of mine to shoot it in my neck.”
Then all went blank, Jeff said, and he woke up five hours later in hospital to a doctor asking if he’d shot fentanyl.
The synthetic opiod is said to be 40 to 50 times more potent than pure heroin. It’s being cut into street drugs and it’s killing people.
In 2015, a third of the 465 drug overdose deaths in B.C. involved fentanyl. That was up from 25 per cent in 2014, 15 per cent in 2013 and five per cent in 2012. It killed 471 people in Canada in 2015 and 132 in the first two months of 2016.
Just last week, a drug bust in Burnaby, Richmond and Surrey uncovered a large fentanyl lab believed to be “one of the largest fentanyl labs seen to date in B.C. in terms of drug production,” according to Delta Police Sgt. Sarah Swallow.
But Jeff doesn’t think fentanyl was the culprit in his case, though he admitted he got his heroin from a new dealer that day.
Jeff overdosed again six days later. He was saved with Narcan a second time.
Jeff shook his head when asked if almost dying scared him enough to make him think he should stop (by his count, he’’s overdosed at least nine times).
“No,” he replied.
“I don’t think about it. I can’t deal with people and their negative ways about homeless people and stuff like that. I’m happier when I’m high and not dealing with reality.”
Jeff said people see addicts as “the scum of the earth,” adding, “society’s been brainwashed to believe we’re bad people down here. Far from it.”
Though Jeff doesn’t want help now, shelter supervisor Blake (pictured) holds out hope he’ll change his mind. As a former addict, she knows miracles can happen.
Blake said she grew up doing crystal meth with her mom, who was also an addict.
By the age of 23, she’d spent a few years as a crack addict on the streets of the Downtown East Side.
Until one day, like Jeff, she was given a choice from the courts – either do nine months in jail or 18 months in a women’s recovery house.
Blake chose the latter.
“It saved my life.”
Blake has been clean for 11 years and dedicates her life to helping others in the darkness of addiction.
Jeff’s recent stint in a recovery home helped him, Blake stressed. A daily addict only using 14 times in two months is “huge progress,” she remarked.
“It may not have helped in the way that society wanted it to, but before Jeff’s face was sunken in, he was really haggard. You look a lot healthier now,” she said.
And he’s alive today because of naloxone, she said firmly.
“You build relationships with these people. You get to know people and their stories. You love them,” remarked Blake.
“If they want to be clean, that’s fine, but if they don’t, we can love and respect them and give them everything they need to have a better quality of life.”
While 67 people died in Surrey last year of illicit drug overdose, the number of those who suffered overdoses is shockingly higher.
Surrey fire service responds to 1,200 incidents of overdose per annum. This January alone, they were called to 232.
As of Feb. 3, Surrey Fire Fighters are now equipped with Narcan. Given that they arrive first to 92 per cent of calls, Fire Chief Len Garis said the decision made sense.
Though the move wasn’t taken lightly, he stressed.
All active firefighters in Surrey are now trained to administer the drug.
Garis acknowledged the numbers of overdoses are “disturbing.”
Most of the firefighters welcome the move.
“They haven’t had the tools and were there waiting. Now they do.”
While still struggling to combat fentanyl, health officials and first responders are now bracing for a powerful painkiller W-18 to inevitably hit the streets. It is up to 100 times stronger than fentanyl and has been found in Alberta.
Though the BC Coroner’s Service and Surrey RCMP say they have yet to come across it, many on the frontline think it’s here.
“If it’s not already here, it’s going to get here,” said Ron Moloughney of the Surrey Area Network of Substance Users, currently 200 members strong.
“And when it does, I’m not sure the naloxone kits are going to be enough. By the time it’s in your system, it’s too late. It kills you instantly.”
NEXT WEEK: A mother fulfilling her daughter’s dying wish. Donna May lobbied for increased access to naloxone after her daughter died of an overdose in hospital.