May 26th, 2024

Fentanyl overdose, if it doesn’t kill you, can still leave lasting brain damage

By GILLIAN SLADE on June 26, 2019. photo
Jason Luan is associate minister for mental health and addictions and MLA for Calgary-Foothills.

Reports are emerging of naloxone saving the lives of someone experiencing a drug overdose, but that doesn’t mean life-changing consequences won’t result.

Dr. Brian Goldman, on the CBC radio program White Coat Black Art, recently devoted two programs to those who have survived a drug overdose of fentanyl but ended up with various levels of brain damage. For some it was as though they had experienced a stroke that was difficult if not impossible to fully recover from.

There was a 20-something student in Vancouver left with “irreparable brain damage.” Someone else who is 24 years old and overdosed on fentanyl in 2016. He had no idea the drugs he was using included fentanyl. He now has a permanent brain injury affecting his balance, speech and memory.

Alberta’s Associate Minister for addiction and mental health is aware of the situation and looking into it.

“I must say I’m still in the early stage of getting all of those experts’ briefings,” said Jason Luan. “My understanding is that it is a complex field in that it requires a different kind of response. I’m keeping my eyes wide open.”

A physician at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver told Goldman that about five years ago he began seeing patients who were spending extended periods in the ICU after a drug overdose.

The extent of the situation is not fully known due to lack of data. Reports by Alberta Health reveal the number of deaths but not the prognosis for those who survived.

A spokesperson for Alberta Health Services said it is not currently tracking numbers on this. In addition to AHS staff there are many people including the general public who have naloxone and can administer it. This makes it difficult to track.

It is known from the local office of Brain Injury Relearning Services (BIRS) in Medicine Hat that some of its clients are experiencing overdose-related brain injuries. It is hard to determine what triggered the brain injury. The symptoms could be the result of long-term drug use or the brain being deprived of oxygen for a period of time or an overdose, said manager Donna Stein.

“Our focus at BIRS is to support people with what they need regardless the cause of their brain injury.  BIRS is a safe place for people to come,” said Stein. “We don’t judge people for their past circumstances, we embrace their courage to move forward.”

Goldman revealed there are some patients with brain injury after an overdose who no longer have any contact with family, and a public trustee is appointed to make decisions on their behalf. Some are discharged from hospital and placed in long-term care with seniors, which brings a new set of challenges, as they are still dealing with an addiction and require a different level of care.

“The latest figures available from the Public Health Agency of Canada say over 9,000 people fatally overdosed across the country between January 2016 and June 2018. But, there are no comprehensive statistics for people who have survived the brain-damaging effects of opioids,” said Stein.

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