Thunder Bay

Daughter's death drives mom to push for change to Ontario's addictions treatment system

Carolyn Karle's daughter died of an accidental drug overdose earlier this fall. Now, the mother is working to bring attention to the need for more post-treatment care in Ontario, including starting a foundation in Dayna's name.

Dayna Karle, 31, relapsed while on recovery journey and died Sept. 19 in Thunder Bay

Carolyn Karle holds a photo of her daughter Dayna, 31, who died earlier this fall from an unintentional overdose in Thunder Bay, Ont. (Logan Turner/CBC)

Sitting in a room dedicated to art and healing in her house in Thunder Bay, Ont., Carolyn Karle smiles as she tries to capture the way her daughter Dayna would light up any room she entered.

"I spent a lot of my life trying to rein her in, because she had the craziest sense of humour," Karle laughed. "She was hilarious."

Dayna was a talented hairstylist, caring friend and avid hockey player, and loved helping with animal rescue, Karle said.

She also lived with addiction.

"Dayna was very brave and she was very open about her addiction," Karle said. "Her goal was to end the stigma and have people not feel badly about being addicted."

Dayna Karle had this incredible ability to make people laugh whenever she walked into the room, her mother says. (Submitted by Carolyn Karle)

Dayna died at age 31 from an unintentional overdose on Sept. 19.

Karle spent several years trying to get her daughter help. Now, she's calling for changes to Ontario's mental health and addictions system. 

Addictions treatment needs to be streamlined like cancer care, said Karle — so when the person is ready for help, their care is co-ordinated, timely and accessible.

Long wait for detox beds

Karle said there were many long days and nights when she and Dayna would spend hours, and sometimes days, calling the detox centre in Thunder Bay, trying to get her in.

One time during the pandemic, Karle said, they spent 14 hours calling before Dayna finally got a spot. But she had allergy-related sniffles, so before being admitted, Karle had to drive Dayna to get a COVID-19 test, only to be faced with yet another long wait.

"We just drove home. We just said we're defeated."

She added that Dayna had lots of support from family and friends in getting access to withdrawal management and treatment.

"I don't understand how a person that doesn't have support would get through this."

There is one withdrawal management program in Thunder Bay, the Balmoral Centre, which has 25 beds to serve the city's population of about 110,000 while also serving people from northwestern Ontario who otherwise don't have access to a similar program.

Dayna loved to travel, play hockey, spend time with friends and help with animal rescue. (Submitted by Carolyn Karle)

Nicole Spivak, executive director of the Crossroads Centre in the city, which offers residential pre- and post-treatment care, said many people begin their journeys of recovery in a detox centre.

She said there are limited beds for withdrawal management in the region, and a desperately needed increase in those beds and services.

It's a call that has been echoed by others across the region.

Street drugs increasingly deadly

Dayna had finished intensive addictions treatment at a private residential facility a few years earlier in southern Ontario, her mom said.

After a relapse in southern Ontario, Dayna moved back to Thunder Bay and she was about nine months into a five-year recovery plan when she overdosed on down, a deadly fentanyl-based street drug.

A relapse is normal in someone's recovery journey, Karle said, but Dayna shouldn't have died as a result. She should've walked into counselling the next day "with her tail between her legs" to talk about the relapse and learn from it.

The increasing deadliness of street drugs is a major problem across the country.

In Thunder Bay alone, the district health unit issued an alert on Oct. 15 about an increase in overdoses from bad drugs after city paramedics responded to eight overdoses in a 24-hour period. They usually respond to about two or three overdose calls per day.

In 2020, there were 64 opioid-related deaths and a total of 99 drug-related deaths in the city — or one person dying from an overdose every three to four days.

Sarah Kennell, director of public policy for the Canadian Mental Health Association, says a safe supply of drugs is needed to save lives. (Submitted by Sarah Kennell)

Sarah Kennell, national director of public policy with the Canadian Mental Health Association, told CBC News that the border closure has disrupted the global drug supply chain. 

She said the result has been an increase in toxic drug supply, which has been deadly as the pandemic forced many people to use substances at home, alone.

A safe supply of drugs is needed to save people's lives, Kennell added, reduce the risk of using substances, and to address the growing deadliness of drug supplies in Canada.

More post-treatment care in the city

Spivak said post-treatment care is an important piece of the recovery journey.

Residential addictions treatment programs can be intense, and there is often a lot of positive energy from people completing them, she said.

Nicole Spivak, director of Thunder Bay's Crossroads Centre, which offers 40 beds for pre- and post-addictions treatment care, says research suggests the risk of relapse in the first six months is high. (Submitted by Nicole Spivak)

But the challenge is taking those insights and skills from treatment, Spivak added, and using them to transition back into the community and manage the stressors of daily life. 

"The risk of relapse in the first six months after treatment is high — that's what research suggests," Spivak said.

Even then, it can be hard to get that post-treatment care, Spivak said.

On average during the pandemic, people had to wait three to four weeks to get one of the 40 beds at the Crossroads residential program, although Spivak said the wait list could be as short as under a week.

"There's definitely a need for more, including transitional housing after a post-treatment program," Spivak said.

Karle hopes to bring more attention to the need for post-treatment care. She's starting a foundation in Dayna's name, and wants to build an after-care program for people in Thunder Bay who need support.

"We really need to step up and get the help people need."

Karle added it doesn't seem fair that she and her friends have to campaign to make change after Dayna died.

"We should not have to do this, but I feel I have to because Dayna would want me to, because she was there to help others."