Ottawa·Special Report

Girlfriend's fentanyl OD a wake-up call for Ottawa man

When a woman died in the night after using fentanyl, a powerful prescription drug, her boyfriend said he knew he had to get off the drug. "If I didn't learn from that, I mean it's pretty much hopeless," he said.

Prescription drug fentanyl has a deadly reputation

Fentanyl wake-up call

9 years ago
Duration 5:37
An Ottawa man says his life changed after his girlfriend died from a fentanyl overdose.

On July 15, an Ottawa man and his girlfriend Allisa went out to catch some electronic music at Bluesfest. They drank, saw DJ Wolfgang Gardner perform and, in his words, had "a hell of a time" before they went back to his mother's home, where they had been living together for four months.

That's when they each took fentanyl, a powerful prescription drug.

In the middle of the night, he woke up and Allisa felt cold. He couldn't feel a pulse. He called his mother, who called 911. Paramedics and police arrived, and weren't able to revive her. She was later pronounced dead. She was 27 years old.

"I couldn't believe it, I didn't want to believe it," he said.

He blames her death on "a combination" of factors, including fentanyl.

"I was addicted to fentanyl, she was addicted to alcohol, she was using fentanyl again, and I guess it was a combination of alcohol, fentanyl and other factors that took her life," he said.

The rise of fentanyl

Developed in the 1960s, fentanyl is a synthetic drug similar in effects to opiates such as morphine and heroin.

It has primarily been prescribed to manage acute pain, including for palliative care patients.

Fentanyl patches, first developed a decade ago, are designed to slowly release the drug over 72 hours.

But it wasn't long before drug users discovered that the prescription drug could be chewed, smoked, injected or otherwise consumed all at once. The results, according to health officials, can be disastrous, particularly for first-time users.

From 2009 to 2011, an estimated 253 deaths in Ontario have been linked to fentanyl, according to the province's Office of the Chief Coroner.

That's more than three times the number of deaths linked to heroin. During that time, only the more widespread oxycodone was connected to more deaths.

"It didn't make sense to me. It's not like she did a whole crapload of drugs. She didn't want to overdose herself. With what I witnessed her using that night, it should have never took her life, because she didn't take that much."

Beyond the normal problems associated with consuming or injecting opiates — including the serious addiction and the painful withdrawal — fentanyl had another issue that has been a wake-up call for police, health officials and treatment groups in Ottawa: it is proving to be one of the deadliest drugs out there.

'I was always looking for them'

The 23-year-old man had played sports growing up but was a mostly indifferent student, and by 19 he had dropped out of two college programs before taking a job as a bartender. That's when he got into what he called a "badder scene."

He started with marijuana before moving to oxycodone. Two years ago, after a short time in jail, he was clean from oxycodone. Then he discovered fentanyl.

"I still kind of wanted to feel good, I guess, and someone offered me some patches, and from there I was always looking for them," he said.

He took whatever work he could find to pay for his habit, or borrowed money from his mother or his father, who had been separated since he was young.

Struggle to get off drug

A year ago he met Allisa, whom he described as a funny, sweet and pretty girl. She had been using fentanyl but had stopped after living with her mother for a brief period, he said. The two moved in together shortly after. He said while she had stopped using fentanyl, she continued to drink.

By July, he said, she was taking less alcohol but had started using drugs again.

And throughout the relationship, he was still using fentanyl.

"I wanted to get off it toward the end of my relationship with Allisa," he said. "I was getting more serious about it. I was starting to cut down on my dose … [but] it turns out you can't really do it yourself."

A file photo of close up of fentanyl tablet split in half with powder showing. (CBC)

When police arrived the night Allisa died, they found drugs at the home, and he was put in jail. He faces seven charges, including four counts of possession for the purposes of trafficking, one count of possession over $5,000 and two counts of breach of probation.

He spent eight days in jail and went through a painful withdrawal. He said guards, police and paramedics were unsympathetic to his condition.

"They just throw you in jail," he said. "That's their cure. If you are not on methadone already, they aren't going to put you on it inside. My stay was pretty terrible. I was shaking, throwing up, diarrhea … it was really bad."

'Looking forward to bettering my life'

He said Allisa's death was an eye-opener.

"If I didn't learn from that, I mean, it's pretty much hopeless. But I did, and I'm looking forward to bettering my life," he said.

He credits his doctor, Dr. Mark Ujjainwalla, with helping to get him off fentanyl, in part because Ujjainwalla prescribed him methadone to help ease him off the drug.

He's hoping to be off methadone this year, and then he's hoping to start working or go back to school if he can.

"I'll take every step I can to get there," he said.

He said he hopes his harrowing experience can serve as a warning for others thinking about trying the drug.

"You either end up dead or [in] a shitty lifestyle … or if you're lucky, you'll end up back to normal, where you started before all that happened," he said. "Best not to go there."