A Nova Scotia father is speaking out about the dangers of prescription drug addiction after his son died of an overdose earlier this year.
Tom Thompson knew his eldest son, Michael, was battling a horrible addiction to prescription drugs.
Hydromorphone had been prescribed about 10 years ago to treat his back pain after a car accident. Ativan was alleviating his anxiety. But the other medication that led to Michael's death and was listed first on the medical examiner's report — fentanyl — floored Thompson.
"I was dumbfounded," he said.
"I was so sure that it was either morphine or ativan — the combination of the two of them. I was dumbfounded; we had never really heard of it."
Fentanyl, a strong opioid used as a surgery anaesthetic and to treat chronic pain, is considered hundreds of times more potent than heroin.
It's popularity among recreational drug users is causing concern in communities across the country, including Nova Scotia where fentanyl killed 16 people between 2007 and 2014, according to the medical examiner's office.
Michael, 33, died on March 18, two days before a scheduled appointment to register for a detox program at the Nova Scotia Hospital in Dartmouth. His father found him dead in his bedroom. He also discovered envelopes and packaging for ativan and hydromorphone that had been mailed to his Hantsport, N.S., apartment.
Thompson believes his son purchased them online to feed his craving for escalating dosages, which was not satisfied through his monthly doctor's prescription.
Thompson said Michael felt he had nowhere else to turn. He said his son worried about telling the truth to his doctor.
"One was that his doctor would take him off his medication as soon as found out he was over-taking — that we would take him right off the medication and he didn't know what we would do," Thompson said.
"He was afraid that if he was found out, that he could be charged for having illegal [possession] because he was getting the drug somewhere to keep him going. So he was nervous about that."
Father rushed son to hospital
Less than three weeks before his death, Thompson said Michael was in terrible shape. He hadn't dropped by to see his parents in a couple of days, or answered their calls. Thompson checked in on him and found his son weak and dehydrated.
Michael told his father he was out of his medication. Thompson rushed him to hospital. Michael needed to be pushed into the building in a wheelchair.
That's when he finally told a doctor he needed help for his prescription drug addiction. Michael was treated, then given a sheet of paper with about two dozen names and numbers, and released.
There's no ambulances, sirens, police cars, medivac — there's nothing. A black wagon pulls up and that's all that comes with someone dying of an overdose. - Tom Thompson
After a couple of days, Michael was able to get through to someone at the Nova Scotia Hospital. Father and son also went to Michael's doctor, and things got tense.
"The first thing the doctor said was, 'Well, Michael, I'm not giving you anymore medication.' I sort of half-politely talked to the doctor and said, 'That's not going to work, you can't do that. Call the prescriptions into the pharmacy, tell them I'm going to pick it up, and I'll be the warden, I'll dole out the medication,'" Thompson said.
Thompson, an electrician, took on that responsibility, thinking it would be for only a few days. Michael would soon be entering treatment.
"We doled out the medication, and tried to keep him on an even keel. And apparently he got more medication because I knew that we weren't giving him enough, but was hoping that it would make do."
After Michael died, drugs kept arriving in mail
Tragically, after Michael had died, a package of ativan arrived in the mail on the same day he was scheduled to register himself at the Nova Scotia Hospital. As for the fentanyl, Thompson has "no clue" how Michael got his hands on it.
But Thompson is certain that the health care system is broken, and failing those at risk of being lost to addiction.
"This is killing [people]," he said.
"There's no ambulances, sirens, police cars, medivac — there's nothing. There's a black wagon that pulls up and that's all that comes with someone dying of an overdose. Nobody knows."
Thompson said it's long past time to fix a problem he said starts with doctors.
"There's a really bad disconnect on prescribing the medication, looking after the person they prescribed it to, knowing that that medication is highly addictive, and where do you go when you're addicted. There's no place here that you can get fast response — where you can go to get help," he said.
Dangers of prescribed drugs
Despite trying his best to save his son, Thompson said he felt helpless.
He's calling to stop the cycle that's been repeated countless times.
"If you don't get at the kids first and put the fear in them of what can happen... [there will be more deaths]. Somebody needs to step up and do something."
Sharing Michael's experience, Thompson believes, is a fitting tribute to his son who he remembers as a kind and gentle soul.
"Michael always helped people, helped all kinds of people. And maybe he can help this last time."