Dayton Wilson, 24, poses for a picture in Kamloops. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff Bassett)

How many drug users who OD’d have brain damage?

Doctors say Canada needs data

Dayton Wilson’s drug-taking routine ended when he overdosed on heroin laced with fentanyl, but being able to walk and talk normally are also part of his past as he struggles with brain damage from a drug linked to thousands of deaths.

Wilson, 24, used illicit drugs for the last time in August 2016 on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, according to his mother, but he doesn’t remember anything about the day he was taken to hospital.

READ MORE: Opioid crisis may be shortening British Columbians’ life expectancy, report says

It was the first of two facilities where he would spend three months learning to take a few steps and utter some words.

The latest figures available from the Public Health Agency of Canada say more than 9,000 people fatally overdosed across the country between January 2016 and June 2018. British Columbia’s coroners service recorded nearly a third of those deaths.

But there are no comprehensive statistics for people who have survived the brain-damaging effects of opioids. Doctors say that information is imperative to understand the magnitude of the “forgotten” victims of the opioid crisis and to provide them with care and resources so they can become as functional as possible.

More than two years after speech, physical and occupational therapy, Wilson speaks haltingly and is difficult to understand. He paused before responding to a question about what he might recall after he was transported to St. Paul’s Hospital in an ambulance.

“I don’t remember this, but I wasn’t breathing for about five minutes,” he said of the length of time his brain is believed to have been deprived of oxygen.

While talking can be frustrating, what he laments most is not being able to rap, one of his passions.

“Balance is kind of hard for me now,” he said, adding he sometimes falls backwards and has hit his head.

Wilson said he started experimenting with drugs at age 15 before becoming addicted to heroin two years later. The brain damage he experienced at age 21 has helped him understand the power and life-changing effects of his addiction.

“I really like the person it’s made me,” he said of his ordeal. “I just don’t like what it’s done to me.”

His mother, Valerie Wilson, said she and her ex-husband had refused to let their son live with them as he continued overdosing at their homes even after treatment as they worried about the effects of his addiction on their other children.

Wilson said there’s little awareness about the consequences of brain injury on those who have survived the opioid crisis.

“One thing I hear a lot is, ‘At least you still have him.’ A lot of the times, I’m like, ‘Well, actually, no, I don’t. I have a version of him.’”

Wilson’s family has tried to find community programs and support groups for him but the only services available are for people dealing with unrelated issues, including stroke affecting older adults, his mother said.

Dr. Adam Peets, a physician in the intensive care unit at St. Paul’s Hospital, where Wilson was initially treated, said brain cells can be affected in as little as 30 seconds after someone overdoses and the level of damage can vary from mild to severe.

An estimated 25 to 33 per cent of patients are admitted to ICU because of complications from increasingly stronger drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanil but there is currently no way to adequately collect that information, Peets said.

Electronic health records include a patient’s diagnosis at admission, he said.

But some of those people may be diagnosed with shock or something vague in an emergency room and a brain injury would be determined later through later lab tests, which he said are recorded on a separate system.

“It’s embarrassing, quite frankly,” Peets said of the lack of data on overdose-induced brain injuries, which he would like to see tracked nationally. “It’s something that the whole health-care system needs to do a better job on.”

Without data, it’s impossible to gauge the resources being used in hospitals or how resources in the community could best be utilized, Peets said.

St. Paul’s will be among hospitals in the Vancouver area to roll out a new electronic health records management system in 2019 to better collect data but it won’t be streamlined across the province, where multiple systems are being used, he said.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

MLAs say Parksville will better prepared for flooding emergencies

RDN receives $150K in funding for Englishman River Flood Hazard Mapping project

Campaign aims to raise $50K for young family of deceased Vancouver Island skydiver

James Smith, 34, died July 5 following incident in Nanoose Bay

Parksville man, 95, gets lifetime achievement award for civil rights work

Bill Duncan worked with Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago

71-unit rental apartment building proposed in downtown Parksville

Open house will take place before second reading of bylaw amendment

B.C. identifies 20 new COVID-19 cases, travellers specified in count

Pandemic total 3,028 cases, 51 people from outside Canada

17-year-old girl from Nanaimo reported missing

RCMP asking for help finding Trisha Harry

B.C. appeals judge’s decision to leave three clubhouses in Hells Angels hands

The province has filed two notices of appeal related to the B.C. Supreme Court decision

Young tourist caught untying boats from Ucluelet dock

‘He was just untying the boats and watching them float away’

Survey, hotline launched amid probe into racist blood-alcohol guessing game at B.C. hospital

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond has been appointed to lead an investigation by Health Minister Adrian Dix

Canadian policing organization calls for decriminalization of simple illicit drug possession

Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police want policing focus of opioid crisis to be replaced with a health one

Filing deadline in RCMP sexual-harassment class-action extended due to COVID-19

Plaintiffs now have until January 2021 to submit claims for up to $222,000

RCMP disarm man experiencing mental health crisis

The male pulled a knife on officers and then held it to his own throat expressing a desire to die

Jamie Bacon pleads guilty to charge in Surrey Six case

The plea brings an end to a complex legal case that has spanned more than a decade

Most Read