Sudbury·HOOKED

Sudbury emergency room finds itself at the frontline of opioid crisis

Thousands of people addicted to opioids are ending up in the emergency room of the Sudbury hospital. And staff are using new drugs and old fashioned conversation to combat the crisis.

50 overdoses a month are just part of how addictions are affecting the health system

The emergency room at Health Sciences North sees about 50 overdoses a month, but doctors are more concerned about the long-term affects of the opioid crisis. (CBC)

Doctors in the emergency room at Health Sciences North get an adrenaline rush when they bring a patient "back to life" after an opioid overdose.

But Alex Anawati, who has worked in the Sudbury ER for eight years, says it isn't usually a cause for celebration.

"There is an eerie silence usually in the room because we know it's another iteration of a story that we've seen over and over," he says.

Dr. Alex Anawati says he's seeing more and more patients dealing with opioid addiction in the Sudbury emergency room and the problem is worse at the Sturgeon Falls hospital where he also works part-time. (Erik White/CBC )

Anawati says every shift he sees someone touched by opioids.

Sometimes it's an overdose, with about 50 coming into the emergency department every month.

But often it's someone being treated for the complications of their addiction.

"They become my regulars. They remember me, I remember them. What's really sad about that is we are the ones that they are around through all these health complications and their early deaths. We watch them die through the repeated visits to the emerg," says Anawati. 

"So we see a lot of people struggling through this. We see their desperation, we see their shame, we see their embarrassment."

Dr. Rob Lepage has been an emergency room physician in Sudbury for 30 years. (Erik White/CBC )

Dr. Rob Lepage has worked in the Sudbury ER for 30 years and has watched as more and more of the patients come in because of addiction.

He too has noticed more patients with serious infections to their spine and heart caused by injection drugs. 

"I've started asking almost everybody these days that has back pain 'Have you ever used intravenous drugs?' And that's not something I would have asked routinely 10 years ago," says Lepage.

"When you see 25-year-olds, their heart valves are totally damaged and some of the surgeons say 'I'm not sure I can fix this' and they're 25 years old. That's tragic."

Dr. Laura Piccinin works in the emergency room at the Sudbury hospital and is also a coroner, giving her two different perspectives on the opioid crisis. (Erik White/CBC )

Dr. Laura Piccinin sees the opioid crisis from two different angles.

She sees patients wrestling with addiction in the emergency room and she sees the end results in her work as a coroner in Sudbury.

Piccinin remembers one patient who came in with an overdose, was discharged and had overdosed before her shift in the ER was over.

"Sometimes it's hard to not feel like we've failed people when they get to that point. And so the least I can do given that that's where they're at is to try to help them through it and keep them alive so that they can get some real help," she says.

"To see if we can bring some of these people back, before they end up in the body bag."

One of the main ways the hospital emergency department is doing that is by prescribing Suboxone, a drug that helps reduce withdrawal symptoms after an addict stops taking opioids.

Hear more about that and hear more of the first-hand stories from the ER in this documentary:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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