Prescription drug overdoses: 2 Winnipeg families speak out

A growing number of young Manitobans are seeking one-off highs with prescription drugs, but their families have no idea about the risks. The CBC's Donna Carreiro speaks to the families of two Winnipeggers who died in separate overdose cases.

Many don't know medication misuse is dangerous, says College of Pharmacists of Manitoba

Derek Sylvestre, 15, died within hours of taking some hydromorphone that he had scored from an acquaintance. His family is now speaking out. 1:56

Derek Twomey went to bed one night a star athlete with his entire life ahead of him, but by dawn the next day, he had become yet another grim statistic.

He was a young Canadian who fatally overdosed on prescription narcotics  a chilling trend that right now, kills more youth than smoking and heroine combined, car accidents or drunk driving.

But Derek Twomey was so much more than a simple statistic.

He was once a living, breathing 20-year-old from St. Vital who loved sports, the colour blue and teasing his baby sister with the pet nickname "Cracker." He was a really picky eater, but had a soft spot for Pillsbury mini-pizzas.

Twomey had the naiveté of youth when he thought he was invincible and took a small prescription pill at the urging of a friend one night. He was dead by dawn.

"My mom and I struggle with what people might assume happened [the night he died]," says his sister, Kara.

"He was not a drug addict. He didn't live in the drug world. Yet somehow it came into our house."

It was then, on that cold February night, that Derek Twomey went to bed a star athlete, and by morning became one of a growing number of Manitobans seeking one-off highs with prescription opiates.

In fact, 12 per cent of Canadian teens admitted last year that they've tried prescription opiates at least once in order to get high.

'His whole body shut down'

In Twomey's case, it was hydromorphone, a powerful slow-acting narcotic painkiller. Both he and another friend took one that night, with no clue whatsoever as to how lethal it was.

"The other guy drove home perfectly fine that night and woke up the next morning; nothing wrong," Kara said, her voice breaking up.

Kara Twomey, left, with her brother, Derek, in a family photograph from when they were younger. (Family photo)
"At some point, when my brother was asleep, his whole body shut down. So he didn't wake up the next morning."

Twomey's parents had, in the past, given the usual "say no to drugs" lecture to their kids, and they thought they had covered all the bases.

They had no idea that prescription drugs were the latest threat to enter the scene.

"The police told my mom that day that they were going to try and find out where [Derek] got it," his sister recalls. "But we found out later it was pretty easy to get a hold of."

They're right. In fact, more than 70 per cent of the time, teens who have tried a prescription drug say they got it from their own parents' medicine cabinet or someone else's.

'Never even thought of it'

It's an education that Dolores Sylvestre learned the hard way. Her son, also named Derek, was a towering, cheerful 15-year-old who was tough enough to play football yet gentle enough to give his mother bear hugs.

But he, like Derek Twomey, scored some hydromorphone from an acquaintance, who had stolen it from the family home. And her son too, died within hours of taking it.

Derek Sylvestre, 15, also died within hours of taking some hydromorphone that he had scored from an acquaintance. (Family photo)
"I was a naive parent, I guess, and never even thought of prescription medication as part of our drug talk," Dolores said, before breaking down in tears.

"Never even thought of it. So there's guilt that you have as a parent, that you don't protect your kids."

But it's an understandable misconception and a common one, says Susan Lessard-Friesen, the deputy registrar with the College of Pharmacists of Manitoba.

She says most Canadians don't realize that legally prescribed drugs are not only the latest "new" trend to hit the youth drug scene, nor do people think of them as dangerous.

"Unfortunately, people think because they're prescribed to someone, they're safe," she said.

What's worse, it's so easy to get one's hands on it. This despite the fact that pharmacists are, more and more, urging clients to return leftover prescriptions back to them.

Pharmacists are also trying to weed out any bogus prescriptions that land on their counters. In some cases, when it comes to opiates, they'll fill a prescription only if the person presents photo identification, if the physician's name and ID number are on the form, and if it's filled within a three-day period.

But even then, there's no guarantee that it will end up where it belongs, instead of in the hands of dealers.

It means more and more kids are at risk of becoming another grim statistic, and more and more families will grieve the lives they left behind.

"My brother was the type that if you met him once, you'd never forget him," said Kara Twomey. "And we think of him every day."