'You're dealing with a demon': Mother calls for better fentanyl care in Grande Prairie

Tyla Savard fears her daughter Carrissa will become a casualty of Grande Prairie's escalating fentanyl crisis.

'It's a complete inner battle and the fentanyl, more often than not, it wins'

Tyla Savard is calling on the province to provide more addictions services in Grande Prairie as her daughter struggles to recover from fentanyl addiction. (Tyla Savard/Facebook)

Tyla Savard fears her daughter Carrissa will become a casualty of Grande Prairie's escalating fentanyl crisis.

Savard says her daughter's sobriety is all the more precarious because of a lack of addiction services in the northern Alberta city.

Despite the opening of the city's first public opioid-addiction treatment clinic last week, Savard still fears the heightened efforts won't be enough to save her eldest child.

"This is a lifelong commitment to being in recovery. It's a black-and-white situation. There are no shortcuts … It's literally life and death.

"I am one of the lucky parents so far. We haven't experienced an overdose," Savard said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

Fentanyl, 100 times more powerful than morphine, is the leading cause of opioid overdose deaths in Alberta. The drug killed 113 people in Alberta in the first three months of 2017. In 2016, 363 people in Alberta died from fentanyl.

Grande Prairie remains one of the centres in Alberta hardest hit by the epidemic. Its death rate due to opioid overdose is second only to Fort McMurray.

According to data from Alberta Health Services, four people have died from the drug between Jan. 1 to March 31, giving the city a rate of 5.2 per 100,000 residents.  Fort McMurray has a rate of 6.2 per 100,000.

This graph shows the number of people who died from an apparent drug overdose related to fentanyl, broken down by health zone, for each three-month period from Jan. 1, 2016 to Mar. 31, 2017. (Alberta Health)
 Savard said when opioid addiction began imposing its grip on Grande Prairie, the city was unprepared.

For years, there was no dedicated methadone or suboxone clinic and only one specialist qualified to treat addiction.

Savard recalls driving her daughter to the nearest opioid-replacement clinic in Fort St. John for her daily dose of methadone, and seeing the clinic parking lot filled with Alberta licence plates.

A local treatment centre, which provides a 20-day detox program, is overwhelmed by demand, Savard said.

"We were trying anything and everything to try and get her into the Northern Addictions Centre because there is so much red tape that you have to go through to get anything to happen," Savard said.

But when addicts are ready for treatment, they need it now, she said, "not tomorrow or a week or a month from now, because that's a lifetime for them.

"It's a complete inner battle and the fentanyl, more often than not, it wins."

'You're dealing with a demon'

Savard believes her daughter was one of the first of a wave of young people in Grande Prairie to become addicted.

Believing it was cocaine, her daughter snorted her first line at age 19. She then began experimenting with her friends.

That was four years ago, and the drug still has a powerful grip on her daughter.

"There is only her and one other girl of those nine that are still alive. Two of them were murdered and the others have all died of overdose," said Savard of her daughter's closest circle of friends.
Tyla Savard is calling for improved addictions care in Grande Prairie, one of the communities hardest hit in Alberta's opiod crisis. (CBC)
 The insatiable need to feed her addiction made Savard's daughter deceitful and reckless, she said. She stopped eating, began stealing money, and became involved in criminal activity.

Given an ultimatum to get clean, she disappeared altogether.

"She was right down in the dirt of life. It was just like a black hole sucking her down," Savard said.

"It's not your kid. You're dealing with a demon that has absolutely no remorse and doesn't care who it grabs or who it takes down. It's stronger than anything imaginable."

Last week, the city's first public opioid-addiction treatment clinic opened, one of a fleet of new services introduced across Alberta as part of the NDP government's strategy to stem the drug's mounting death toll. 

The opioid dependency treatment clinic at the Northern Addictions Centre, will provide opioid replacement therapy to approximately 300 patients.

The clinic is part of a province-wide program funded through a $3-million Alberta Health grant to improve access to counseling and supports and the availability of the methadone and suboxone treatment.

The clinic is only the second of its kind in the city. The ACT opioid treatment clinic, a non-profit organization, opened last summer.

With more than 120 regular clients, wait lists for care have been growing as opioid dependency in the region soars. Savard's daughter has been in treatment at the ACT centre for nine months.

'There is a big need' 

The clinic's managing physician, Dr. Darryl Bartie, says the new services will begin to appease the overwhelming demand for addiction treatment in Grande Prairie.

For too long, the stigma around opioid dependency meant the impending crisis was ignored by the medical profession and government agencies, he said.

"Up until this fentanyl explosion happened in Western Canada, I think there was more of a stigma attached to opioids," Bartie said.

"You know, if you used heroin, you were from the wrong side of the tracks. I think fentanyl has now brought it into just about every home. Everyone is being affected by it so there is a much bigger push to get this dealt with."

I thinkfentanylhas now brought it into just about every home. Everyone is being affected Dr. Darryl Bartie, Grande Prairie

Despite the improved services for local patients, Bartie said there are still glaring gaps in care.

Long-term treatment options are still lacking in the city.

Addiction is both physical and psychological and even addicts who can withstand the agonizing withdrawals will struggle to stay clean without supportive care, he said.

"We do need more resources in the community, but I do think we have a good start," Bartie said.

"There is a big need and we're not going to run out of patients anytime soon, unfortunately."


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.

With files from Ariel Fournier