St. John Ambulance is combating opioid overdoses with free life-saving training.

Photo by Andrea Marie Tan
Photo by Andrea Marie Tan

It is no secret that the fentanyl crisis has become a predominant threat in the Okanagan, but just how bad is it?

In April 2016, British Columbia declared a public health emergency due to the alarming rate of overdose-related deaths in connection with opioids. Over time, this crisis has gotten worse. Recent studies show that approximately 80% of drugs in British Columbia are laced with fentanyl. Even further, as of August 31 there were 122 illicit drug overdose deaths, amounting to approximately 3.2 deaths per day. Of these deaths, 72% were people between the ages of 30 to 59.

In response to this crisis, several agencies and volunteer organizations are fighting back. Among them is the St. John Ambulance. The St. John Ambulance is stepping up to provide free opioid overdose response training, acting as BC’s leading first aid and safety charity, and commiting themselves to the promotion of health, safety, and quality of life throughout the community.

According to Program Head, Drew Binette, the training program teaches participants valuable skills on how to intervene during an opioid crisis. “Our Opioid Overdose Response Training is funded through the provincial government, and they’ve funded us to provide training for up to five thousand British Columbians...We’re just over one thousand right now,” said Binette.

There are two options for training : a 3.5 hour course, and a 7 hour course. Both courses are free. According to Binette, the 3.5 hour course is the most popular, and is longer than comparable courses because it delves deep into hands-on, scenario-based training. He said, “When you go through the training, we talk about what are opioids, how they are used, and how to administer naloxone, you get hands-on practice to use the actual syringes that you would find in a naloxone kit. You use life-like pads to practice injecting.”

The 7 hour course is offered less frequently, but covers much of the same training with the addition of adult CPR and AED. Like the 3.5 hour course, it is catered simply for anybody who wants the training. There are no barriers. You can be any age; you can have no prior first aid training. According to Binette, “the course is good for somebody who is very uncomfortable with first aid, or has never done first aid before and wants to check it out.”

There is a lot of stigma and discrimination surrounding opioid overdoses, and Binette stresses the importance of remembering that it  is something that can happen to anyone. “It’s not just homeless people or the people that you see on the street. It could be at a party and people are using and they don’t know that it’s laced,” he added.

Image from course offered by St. John Ambulance
Image from course offered by St. John Ambulance

But just how bad is the fentanyl crisis in British Columbia?

Statistics are always at least a month behind, but as of August 31 there have been 972 opioid-related deaths across British Columbia this year. Last year there were approximately 1400 deaths, but the year is only two thirds over. As Binette points out, stigma and discrimination are also having another effect: “87% of the overdose deaths occurred inside. It’s quite sad to see what’s happening.”

Opioid overdoses sometimes occur in unexpected demographics. According to Binette, “It can also be your grandmother who’s taken too much morphine – put on a morphine patch and didn’t know. We just had a two-year-old on Vancouver Island who took morphine because he was sick, and he overdosed. Thankfully, he was brought back by naloxone. It could really happen at any age.”

According to the St. John Ambulance website, “Vancouver, Surrey, and Victoria and the three townships experiencing the highest number of overdoses in 2018.” However, the fentanyl crisis is having an adverse effect on the Okanagan as well. So far, there have been 160 overdose deaths in the Interior alone.

“It’s so sad, because it’s an issue that’s…moved out into rural and remote communities,” says Binette. “So it’s even more important that we get communities trained up. Right now we have courses that are happening in Penticton, Kelowna, and Kamloops, and as more people are asking us about it, we’re going to be pushing the course out into more communities.”

Stigma also plays a part in the fentanyl crisis, as it can lead people to make incorrect assumptions about the way opioids are affecting our communities. This is also why reviewing common myths is another component to the Opioid Overdose Response Training at St. John Ambulance.

Binette gives a few examples: “There’s a lot of myths like ‘I don’t want to help someone who’s overdosed, because if I touch fentanyl I’ll overdose and die’. So that’s a myth we talk about. Because there actually hasn’t been a case of someone who’s overdosed and died of fentanyl contact. There’s [also] myths around ‘the people who overdose are always junkies or the homeless people’ but that’s not true.”

Again, Binette puts emphasis on the fact that fentanyl overdose can happen to anyone, regardless of age or social status. “At Thompson Rivers University, the vice-president overdosed and died last year,” he says. “At the end of the day, it could be anybody. It could be your first time taking a drug. It could be your grandmother who’s taken too [many] meds. It could be…when you’re at work and you hurt your back and the doctor prescribes you opioids.”

Drug overdose is not a conscious decision. When taking opioids for pain relief, your body physically requires more medication to keep the pain away, and then you become hooked on the drug. Binette says this is another reason why it’s important to be informed. “We talk about all that stuff in the course so then you as a human being become more aware of that,” he says. “So then if you do get hurt and your doctor wants to [prescribe] you opioids, you have a conscious decision to say yes or no.”

When everything boils down, knowledge is one of the biggest tools for the average person who wants to help fight the fentanyl crisis. This is why Opioid Overdose Response Training is so important. St. John Ambulance will arm you with the tools you need to administer naloxone, practice artificial respiration, and care for the individual who’s overdosed. On top of that, you receive a naloxone kit to take with you – and everything is free.

“We take twelve [people] at a time, and as the courses fill up we’ll put more on, so we can accommodate more folks,” says Binette. “Our ultimate goal is to get naloxone training into standard first aid so it becomes a norm around first aid.”

For more information or to sign up for the course, visit startsavinglives.ca.