This Calgary mother whose son died of fentanyl overdose wants you to be able to spot the warning signs

When Conner Clark died of a fentanyl overdose in 2013, few Albertans had even heard of the drug. In the first 11 months of 2017, the death toll hit 460.

Almost 1,300 Albertans have died since the opioid crisis began

Yvonne Clark visits Calgary schools, warning students and parents about the dangers of street drugs. Her son, Conner, died of a fentanyl overdose at 21 in 2013. (Reid Southwick/CBC)

When Conner Clark died of a fentanyl overdose in 2013, few Albertans had even heard of the drug.

The 21-year-old power engineer from Calgary was one of 66 Albertans who died from the toxic street drug that year.

At the time, there were no public warnings, no co-ordinated response from health officials or government, and nowhere for his family to go for answers.

"I live with Conner in me," says his mom, Yvonne Clark. "He's with me every day and I tell his story."

Two years after Conner died, health officials started mobilizing to address what became an unprecedented public health crisis that spun wildly out of control.

In January 2015, public health officers gathered reports on the escalating death toll and emergency room visits before pushing for province-wide distribution of the overdose-reversing medicine naloxone.

Now — three years into the response — there is no end in sight. Almost 1,300 Albertans have died since the epidemic began.

Fentanyl was the 10th leading cause of death in Alberta in 2016. (Government of Alberta)

According to the latest estimates, fentanyl was the 10th leading cause of death in 2016, falling below kidney disease, liver disease and the flu.

"We certainly acknowledge that this crisis is not getting better," said Dr. Nick Etches, a medical officer of health in Calgary who was among the group of doctors pushing for action three years ago.

"More people are dying and there's a lot of suffering that families and Albertans are facing."

Hakique Virani, an addictions specialist based in Edmonton, said what may be the most effective approach "to turn this thing around, if we have a hope" is for Ottawa to decriminalize drug possession for personal use, a policy grassroots Liberals are urging the party to adopt at a convention in April.

Virani said many Albertans die when using fentanyl alone, which he believes is linked to the stigma around drug use and the fear of going to jail.

"I hear this from patients all the time. If you're addicted to opioids, you're walking around either afraid that you're going to die or you're going to jail," he said.

"If you expect to turn this thing around, you have to address that huge policy impediment to treating people with substance use conditions, and providing environments that is supportive to them seeking out help."

Conner got hooked on oxycodone

Before Clark's son died, he had been hooked on the painkiller oxycodone for a year and a half, long before she knew about it. After she found out, she struggled to get him into treatment in Alberta and eventually flew him to a program in Phoenix, Ariz.

After he came home for a work-related trip, his sister found him dead in his bedroom.

Since then, Clark has taken her son's story into schools across the Calgary area. She has stood in more than 180 gymnasiums and classrooms warning students and parents about street drugs and how to detect the telltale signs that their friends or loved ones are using.

"I've had students come up to me and say, 'I'm worried about my mom, I'm worried about my dad,'" she said. "There have been some parents who passed away and their child's in my audience and they have to leave because it's too hard."

The crisis has forced Alberta health officials to consider steps that previously seemed extreme, such as opening safe consumption sites.

They're also looking at prescribing long-term users, who have not responded well to traditional treatments, with injectable hydromorphone or medical-grade heroin, in a supervised clinic.

Pilots are proposed in Calgary and Edmonton, based on a model from the Crosstown Clinic in Vancouver's east side, where the method of replacing illicit opioids with prescription-grade substitutes in extreme cases has yielded impressive results.

"That has been shown to improve their health and well-being, to reduce their substance use and reduce overall costs to public social services," Etches said.

Elaine Hyshka, co-chair of Alberta's opioid response commission, said she has seen progress in the past year with expanded addictions treatment and greater access to naloxone, among other steps.

More help is coming, she said, including efforts to have health-care teams in emergency departments working with opioid-using patients to help them get treatment, and more training for family doctors to treat patients with suboxone, an opioid-replacement drug similar to methadone.

"Every jurisdiction across the country is grappling with what is one of the worst public health crises in recent memory —and no one has the complete answer on how to solve it yet," Hyshka said.

"We're still playing catch-up," she said, adding opioid addictions have been a problem in Alberta for a decade or longer.

"There was very little investment at the time to address it, and to set up the infrastructure we need in the health system to respond to the problem."