Nova Scotia·Point of View

My son is not who you picture when you talk about fentanyl. But he died a month ago

My son Archie MacIsaac-Vacon was a brilliant kid. He knew the dangers of drugs. And yet he made a mistake.

Education will not prevent overdoses; we need to make it safer for people who make a mistake

Archie MacIsaac-Vacon died of a fentanyl overdose on June 29. His family wants to change how we talk about drugs. (Submitted by Rob MacIsaac)

My son, Archie MacIsaac-Vacon, wanted to be an anesthesiologist when he was a kid. 

He set about learning all about opiates and, at 12, Archie could draw representations of fentanyl, carfentanil and other opioids. He could tell you their potency. 

I learned a little about morphine and fentanyl as I trained to become a paramedic. 

But, when it came to the molecules and what they do, Archie outstripped me there like he came to do in chess, philosophy, geography, languages and politics.

My son would later change his mind about his career. He was accepted to many programs, but settled on industrial engineering at my Alma Mater, Concordia University. He would have started there this spring.

Instead he collapsed in the bathroom of a Montreal bar at 2 a.m. on June 29 — and the forward motion of every amazing thing that he was stopped. Archie could not be revived. 

It could be anyone

Bystanders started CPR and first responders came quickly. But, there on that floor, our beautiful, brilliant, loving and curious 19-year-old son died.

Our family, Archie's wonderful friends, and our communities in Nova Scotia and Quebec are grieving. I am devastated. My various worlds — medicine, motherhood, love and advocacy — have collided and everything has fallen apart. 

I had planned to send my son off to university with his friends in Montreal this summer, but instead we buried him with his relatives in Cape Breton. 

Archie and his mother, Charlene Vacon, at Cabot Links in Inverness, N.S. Archie worked as a caddy at the course for four summers. (Submitted by Rob MacIsaac)

Archie is probably not the person you picture when you hear of a fatal drug overdose.

When our son was in grade school, his teachers often told us that he was very bright. By high school, his friends echoed that: Archie was the smartest person they'd ever met. 

Our dinner table conversations were more like lectures about Archie's most recent ideas on genetics, the virtues, social democracy, antiquity — or the many other subjects he'd devoted his time to understanding. We saw that he was able not just to remember facts, but to synthesize ideas and develop an ethics for his own life that included thoughtful debate in vibrant socializing.

And we talked, too, about the fentanyl crisis, something I witnessed when I worked Alberta and shared with my two teen boys. 

I told them about the number of people who had died from an overdose. About how, too often, it was mixed in with whatever drug someone thought they were taking. 

Education isn't enough

My partner Rob, often reminded our sons not to take that risk. Our family believes that adventure makes life sweeter — and we ought to consider what risks are worth taking.  Archie grew into an adventuresome young man; he knew how to weigh the risks and benefits of his actions. 

It's why I've realized that education will not solve this for society. It didn't save Archie, because even the best of us — and he was the best of us — make mistakes. 

Yet we just keep telling people that drugs are dangerous and expect the outcome to change.

We must do better. Our society needs to look for ways to support, help and protect people. 

Archie, with his commitment to social justice, would not want individuals to think that these problems are theirs alone. Street drugs are a societal problem, one that is leaving users, families, paramedics and others to pick up the pieces. 

Vacon would like to see naloxone more widely available. (Christine Rankin)

Keeping our sons safe

I want people to have layers of safety built between them and fentanyl so that it becomes so much harder to get to a place where one bad decision costs a person his life.

Here are a few ideas that we hope people and politicians consider. 

  • Make your important decisions before you start drinking — and stick to them. Archie had been drinking and not slept in 20 hours when he died

  • Buy fentanyl test strips, which are inexpensive and available online

  • If you or your friends use drugs, carry naloxone. It's available at many pharmacies and harm-reductions centres in Canada and can reverse a fentanyl overdose

  • The government needs to make naloxone more widely and freely available

  • Harm-reduction policies must speak to young men, who are disproportionately victims of fentanyl overdoses

Finally, we have to look at drug legislation differently —  and we have to talk about drug use without shaming or moralizing. 

Please tell people about Archie. He was adventurous, brilliant and kind. He believed in standing up for what is right. 

And I wish he were still here.