I watched the opioid crisis from the front lines. I'm glad I'm leaving
Responding to overdoses is increasingly a bigger part of our job as firefighters
This First Person column is written by Dan Scheuerman who worked as a firefighter in Calgary for 13 years. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
As a Calgary firefighter, I've seen the opioid epidemic escalate from a "new thing" into a full-blown national nightmare. In 2014, I transferred to one of the busier districts in the city, near Chinook Mall where overdoses soon became commonplace.
When fentanyl abuse first started appearing on the streets and entered the news cycle, we learned how to administer Narcan, an antidote that is delivered nasally. At the time, I didn't think much of it. It was no different than learning a new technique or administrative process. We may come into contact with overdosed individuals and if we did, one shot of Narcan would break the opiate pathway in their brains and jolt their nervous system back to life.
It was like watching a resurrection. After the patient was handed off to EMS we'd return back to the firehall, waiting for a big fire or other "real firefighter" emergency where the cavalry was needed.
Instead, overdoses became an increasingly significant part of the job.
At first they occured where you might expect them: derelict corners in industrial spaces hidden from sight. But as time went on, my crews and I were responding to overdose calls anywhere and everywhere — mall washrooms, 7-Eleven, hiking paths on busy weekends.
A new shipment announced its arrival through the volume of calls near LRT stations. These stations were used by dealers to distribute drugs. As the train went up the line, so did the overdoses.
Then the drugs became more dangerous. A more potent variation, carfentanil, rose to prominence. It was 100 times more powerful. Sometimes it was mixed with meth.
My fellow firefighters and I grew increasingly concerned about accidental exposure. There were sporadic reports of such events. In 2017, I petitioned the department for extra Narcan on fire trucks as emergency reserves for the off chance powder or a needle caught a first responder off guard. At the time, there wasn't enough information about the effects of second-hand drug exposure. Eventually, the odds of this scenario impacting a first responder were deemed low, and the Calgary Fire Department decided not to pursue this.
As the epidemic hit its stride, my crew received a bittersweet letter of commendation from EMS for our performance responding to an overdose. A lifeless body at the bottom of a narrow public stairwell leading to an underground parkade. Surrounded by needles. Taking agonal breaths as his unconscious body struggled to keep him from the brink. My partner and I, both over six feet, contorted ourselves around him in the claustrophobic corridor, desperately trying to avoid a needle strike as we slid our arms under his limp body to carry him up the stairs and onto a stretcher.
Once there, EMS gave him multiple shots of naloxone. He eventually came back and he was erratic and oblivious to what had just happened. I remember EMS said they'd have to monitor him because they were concerned he'd crash again in minutes from all the drugs in his system. But the sound of distant sirens made him bolt upright.
"The cops," he stuttered as his eyes scanned the distance. We tried to reassure him it wasn't the cops and they weren't coming for him. But, unconvinced, he violently wrestled himself out of the stretcher and sprinted away. If a person refuses treatment, there's nothing we can do.
People often react to us firefighters like we're there to judge or get them in trouble. When patients aren't honest about the drugs they've taken, it makes it harder for us to help them — which is what we're there for — whether that means giving them oxygen until the medics arrive, or doing CPR so they make it to the emergency room.
Some of the people we treated got mad at us for killing their high. That's one of the more depressing aspects — instead of being aware we just saved their life, they seemed upset they weren't high anymore.
It's not just the homeless who are affected by this crisis. A girlfriend came home to find her boyfriend had overdosed. We Narc'd him. I drove the ambulance as medics struggled to control his vomiting, his girlfriend in the front seat next to me, screaming. I had a job to do: I had to focus on getting the ambulance to the hospital safely and in time while somehow talking her down as she tried to squeeze between me and where the medics were working.
We avoid thinking about the stories for these patients — it's too depressing to acknowledge that our work likely has little to no long- term impact.
But an overdose beside a busy hiking path on a sunny summer weekend did have a rare moment of lucidity. A young woman was sprawled in the bushes. I gave her a shot of Narcan. My crew and I waited with bated breath. She was far from our firetruck and if a second shot didn't work, we'd have an exceptionally difficult time getting her to advanced care. But then she took a breath.
"You almost died. Take it easy." Her body snapped back to reality. She looked at us with piercing self-awareness before her face collapsed into an emotional breakdown.
I saw a glimmer of hope in her eyes. Maybe this would be her wake-up call to break the cycle.
As I retire after 13 years of service and pivot into a new career, there is plenty I'll miss about firefighting. All the crews. Firehall life. Being at the centre of catastrophic events and feeling like our interventions were meaningful.
But leaving the front lines of the opioid epidemic is one of the things I'm most looking forward to.
You join the job to help make an impact on people's lives – not hold them over till their next hit. It's like watching multiple suicides in slow motion and all you can do is stand and watch from a world removed. At least I have a way out.
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