For Helen Jennens, the 645 candles set up in the lobby of the Interior Health building Monday were more than just a reminder of local lives lost to the overdose epidemic.
“In my view it’s kind of like saying, ‘We’re sorry. We didn’t know what to do or how to do it,’” said the Kelowna woman, who lost two sons to the crisis.
“This is really touching for me. I come here and I think of my kids and it brings awareness (to the overdose crisis). We have to get the message out.”
Rian, Jennen’s oldest son, had a drug problem in his younger years. He got into a recovery program and had eight years of being sober before being struck by a truck on his motorcycle. The next few years he suffered through multiple surgeries, and the list of prescription drugs he was on were terrible, she said.
He died in 2011 at age 37 from an overdose of prescription drugs.
Five years later her son Tyler died at age 40. He had ruptured his left Achilles tendon in 2008 while playing football. A lot of surgeries followed and for the pain he was prescribed OxyContin.
“That’s when he acquired his opioid addiction,” Jennens, who now and lobbies for change to drug policy with Moms Stop the Harm, said. “When his brother died in 2011, he turned to heroin.”
The family then went through four to five years of “awful stuff” trying to help him.
“We thought he was doing really well and then he picked up on Jan. 14 2016 … we have all the information in his phone … he thought he bought heroin, but it was 100 per cent fentanyl.”
Their lives are represented in the Interior Health candle display, which is being used to shine a light on overdose deaths.
Between January 2016 and December 2018, 645 people in the health region died from an illicit drug overdose in Penticton, Kelowna, Vernon and Kamloops.
“It gives people a visual,” said Jennens. “You know, you post a number on a board like that, it gives people a visual of how many people who have died from this epidemic.”
With Moms Stop the Harm, Jennens is lobbying for decriminalization, like they did in Portugal, and creating a safe supply.
“Until we have solutions to keep well and drug free we have to keep them alive. A dead drug user will never recover,” she said, adding that it’s expensive to support addiction the way we are doing it.
“When my son died there was seven first responder vehicles there. What does that cost us, economically and compassionately?” she said. “Safe supply and the things that IH are doing are smart and I think we have a long ways to go.”
Jennens said that the awareness and prevention piece should be the focus, echoing the sentiments of I think we have to look at awareness and prevention piece.
Corrinne Dolman, regional lead for the overdose response in Interior Health, said they are working toward that and the travelling candle display is aimed at reminding people the crisis hasn’t gone away.
“The public health emergency still in effect. It was declared three years go, and we’re going into the fourth year. We’re seeing some stabilization but the numbers are high.”
People are now 4.5 times more likely to die of OD death than a car accident in B.C., a shocking statistic that Dolman believes will be turned around.
“Things that have had an impact is the access to naloxone, OD prevention sites have also had an impact. We have good research showing that,” she said, adding that the goal is to build a continuum of services and break down stigmas so people feel comfortable getting help.
Stigma, is still the biggest stumbling block.
“The most important thing is we continue to talk about it, it’s still happening and people are still dying,” she said.
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