In October, Susan saw something no mother should never have to see.
Susan, who did not want to use her real name to protect the identity of her son, was napping in her home on the West Shore when suddenly she was struck with an odd feeling and made her way upstairs to her son’s bedroom. That’s when she heard it. A deep gurgling – the unmistakable sound of an overdose – and found her son unconscious on his bed.
“I knew straight away what it was … It’s something you never want to hear,” Susan said. “It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever experienced.”
Having had previous training on how to administer naloxone, a medication used to block the effects of opioids, Susan called 911 and sprang into action. She grabbed her narcan kit and injected one dose of naloxone. Shortly after paramedics arrived, her son came to.
Susan’s son’s addiction started when a friend offered him drugs and over the next five years he struggled with the addiction that led to a brief jail term. He had only been home a few days and things seemed to be going well, when he overdosed. After being revived, her son realized it was an experience he never wanted to put his family through again and wanted to get help. “He felt bad that he put me through that,” Susan said.
Shortly after, Susan’s son began opioid therapy treatment at AIDS Vancouver Island’s health centre in Langford, which provides opiate substitution therapy, as well as harm reduction services and information on disease prevention, safer drug use and overdose prevention to patients.
He’s been on a substitution treatment called suboxone for the last six months and sees the clinic’s doctor, Randal Mason, regularly. In recent months, Susan has seen a huge improvement in her son’s health.
“He’s a totally different young man. I feel he’s the man he was before he started drug use,” she said, adding the clinic treats patients with compassion respect and dignity, and has become a safety net for her son, who knows he can touch base with a doctor whenever he needs.
“This clinic has been an absolute godsend to our family, my son and the community as a whole. Without this program, I don’t know where he would be. Because of the opioid crisis now, this clinic is a vital part of the whole solution … We need this clinic here.”
Susan’s son is one of the dozens of people the centre has helped since it opened on Jacklin Road last October. Originally, the clinic was seeing roughly 15 patients per day on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Since then, that number has ballooned to more than 80 patients overall as a result of referrals and walk-ins.
The centre has brought on another doctor, nurse Carolyn Showler – along with her informal therapy dog Griffey, an intern, and has extended its hours to include Monday afternoons.
But with increased demand for services comes the need for funding. AIDS Vancouver Island dipped into its reserve fund to open the clinic. In recent months, the clinic has been garnering support from local organizations, municipalities and politicians – many who have thrown their support behind it. But if funding from outside sources can’t be secured by the time the reserves run out, the services at the clinic could be impacted.
“We’re talking about 80 plus people and their families and loved ones who would be impacted, as well as the staff here. And in the middle of an opioid crisis, it just doesn’t make sense to me,” said Hermione Jefferis, manager of health promotion and community development with AIDS Vancouver Island.
“We’re having lots of great conversations and discussions, but at this point we still have not had any concrete financial support from outside of AVI.”
Other families on the West Shore have spoken up about the benefits of the clinic as well.
C.A.’s son has struggled with opioid addiction for the last seven years. After first being introduced to pot when he was a teenager, he began to experiment with other drugs, such as crystal meth and heroin.
He spent years in and out of treatment centres across the province, until a family member told C.A. about the West Shore clinic that opened in her own neighbourhood.
“We found it really hard living here and having to go downtown, if he had no money, didn’t have a bus pass or had to work,” she said, noting he was on the methadone program at the clinic. “It’s hard to see them like that.”