Residential opioid program giving drug users chance at new life

A one-of-a-kind program for opioid users in Ottawa is not only helping them manage their addiction by feeding it, but giving them a safe place to live while they're undergoing the treatment.

One-of-a-kind program helping save lives, medical director believes

Dr. Jeff Turnbull, right, former chief of staff at the Ottawa Hospital, now works on the front lines of the opioid crisis as medical director of Ottawa Inner City Health. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

A one-of-a-kind program for opioid users in Ottawa is not only helping them manage their addiction by feeding it, but giving them a safe place to live while they're undergoing the treatment.   

The managed opioid program (MOP), launched last August, provides participants with controlled amounts of pharmaceutical-grade narcotics, replacing street drugs that could be laced with deadly substances such as fentanyl.

They were overdosing at a rate of three times a week. It would have not taken too long for some of them to die, or many to die.- Dr. Jeff Turnbull , Ottawa Inner City Health

It's tailored toward those who have failed at other treatment programs and have run out of options.

Twenty five people are currently taking part, and the wait list has grown to more than 50.

Participants live in an apartment building in Hintonburg, where they receive round-the-clock care from medical professionals including nurses and personal support staff.

The John Howard Society, which is a partner in the program, did not allow CBC to visit the building in order to protect the privacy of the participants.

The program is co-funded by the Ministry of Health and the Champlain Local Health Integration Network, and run by Ottawa Inner City Health.

Participants in the managed opioid program receive intravenous doses of the painkiller hydromorphone or Dilaudid up to seven times a day as a replacement for street drugs. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Program has saved lives, director says

Like a similar program in Vancouver, Ottawa's MOP substitutes street drugs with prescription opioids. 

But there's one aspect that makes it unique.

"It's a residential program," said Dr. Jeff Turnbull, medical director of Ottawa Inner City Health and former chief of staff at the Ottawa Hospital. 

"We have these individuals with us all of the time."

Turnbull believes the program has saved lives.

"They were overdosing at a rate of three times a week. It would have not taken too long for some of them to die, or many to die."

Dr. Jeff Turnbull, right, and other staff at Ottawa Inner City Health's supervised injection site at Shepherds of Good Hope listen to a woman, seated left, begging to be admitted to the managed opioid program. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

'It's so emotional, in the best way'

Participants began moving into the apartment building in April. 

For some, it's the first time they've bought bed linen or gone grocery shopping. Many spend their spare time gardening or reconnecting with family.

Anne Marie Hopkins, supervisor of the supervised drug injection site at Shepherds of Good Hope in the ByWard Market, knew some of the MOP's participants during their darkest hours. 

She teared up talking about the changes she's witnessed.

Anne Marie Hopkins describes the difference she sees in people who use the managed opioid program. 0:50

"It's so emotional, in the best way," Hopkins said. "Seeing them have the stability they haven't been able to have for so many years, and the fact they're not living in a shelter after so many years, it's beautiful."

One former client who was severely underweight and had lost her teeth due to drug use now appears healthy and has a new smile thanks to dentures. 

"Seeing her with new teeth and the weight gain and all these issues sorted out has just been incredible," Hopkins said.

Begging for admission

The program has been so successful drug users are literally begging to be admitted.

When CBC visited Shepherds of Good Hope, a woman whose jaw had been badly broken in a drug deal gone wrong sobbed and pleaded with Turnbull to let her into the MOP.

But right now, all the beds are taken.

"She'll have to use intravenous street heroin and put herself at risk," Turnbull said. "It's heartbreaking, but that's the reality we face every day."

While there have been early success stories, the program has also revealed deeper problems among its participants.

Turnbull said some were taking drugs to deal with pasts spent in residential schools and other abusive situations. 

"We had to actually unravel all that history of trauma that they've experience beforehand and start to treat their mental health problems, treat their trauma," Turnbull said.

"That's a very long road to recovery,"

Need for resources

The program includes group sessions to help participants deal with some of those ghosts, but Stephanie Muron, the MOP's nurse coordinator, said more resources are needed. 

"Oftentimes the services are not covered, and if they are, there's a long wait list. Or it's not long enough, or it's not intensive therapy," Muron said.

"These people's lives have been very difficult, and we really need someone to be consistent in there long term to provide them with dealing with their past, and also to help them learn to live a new life as well."

Stephanie Muron coordinates physical and mental health care for the managed opioid program. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

The goal of the program is to help participants recover to the point where they can live independently, find a job or go back to school.

Only then will space open up to allow more people in, giving them a chance at a new life, too.