Out in the Open

'Nobody is safe' from fentanyl crisis, says Indigenous doctor

Dr. Esther Tailfeathers’ First Nation in southern Alberta was among the first to distribute naloxone kits in the community in response to fentanyl overdoses.
Dr. Esther Tailfeathers (Courtesy of Dr. Esther Tailfeathers)

Dr. Esther Tailfeathers first witnessed a fentanyl overdose in 2014.

She was pulling into a Wal-Mart parking lot in Lethbridge, Alberta. Next to her was a white van. She could hear children screaming inside it. 

"I looked over and saw the driver fall over and out the door."

She went over and found a man in his 20s, not breathing and not responsive. She delivered CPR and called for help.

It wasn't until later that she learned he'd taken fentanyl. It would be the first of many overdoses from the potent opioid she'd see.

Tailfeathers is from the Blood Tribe First Nation in southern Alberta. She works in communities across the province, but still spends time on the Blood Tribe reserve. 
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau poses for selfies as he wades through supporters at a gathering on the Blood Tribe reserve in Stand Off, Alta., Friday, Oct. 14, 2016. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

That community was among the first to raise the alarm about fentanyl in Canada, and it was also among the first to take action. 

"We had a huge discussion in our community about enabling versus harm reduction," Tailfeathers says. "Harm reduction, in our minds, was starting the naloxone kits."

Naloxone is a drug that can restore an overdose patient's breathing and consciousness, reversing the effects of an opioid overdose. On the Blood reserve, kits were handed out to members of the public.

The rate of overdose deaths fell significantly for a while. But over the years, the death toll on Blood Tribe and elsewhere continued to rise.

Data released by the British Columbia government over the summer found that First Nations people in the province were five times more likely to overdose than everyone else. 

Tailfeathers has lost patients, community members and friends to fentanyl. Her own niece died of an overdose earlier this year. 

"The grief is in our communities is huge, and nobody is safe from it," she says. 

The young man Tailfeathers saw overdose three years ago in the Lethbridge parking lot survived that day. After that, he lived through three more overdoses. 

The fourth one killed him.