Drug overdoses: clergy in Ottawa diocese, Canada, among those saving lives

Monique Stone Canada DrugsThe Revd Monique Stone has been leading the Diocese of Ottawa’s response to overdoses involving counterfeit opioid drugs sold illegally. She describes what has been happening.

On 31 December 2016 in Ottawa, Canada, a news article urged citizens to go to their local pharmacy to pick up a free naloxone kit. Naloxone is an antidote that assists in counteracting the effects of opioid drug overdoses. The announcement was an effort to bring awareness to the reality that counterfeit opioid drugs containing high levels of death-causing fentanyl had hit the streets of Ottawa. The availability of the kit at no charge was, and is, an effort by Canada’s Ministry of Health to encourage the public to help in a battle they are not sure they can win on their own.

The invitation that day was for anyone - parents, teachers, government organisations, and yes, even clergy - who might come in to contact with a person who had taken an illicit opioid during New Year’s Eve festivities, to try and save a life.

That is what naloxone can do. It can save a life. It doesn’t reverse the impact of an opioid overdose but rather it delays the effects, namely respiratory depression and heart failure, hopefully long enough for an ambulance to arrive.

A mere six weeks after the New Year’s Eve announcement two teens died of apparent overdoses. Though these deaths were not the first, the media attention surrounding the tragic loss of the 14 and 18-year-old girls acted as a catalyst for broad range attention and action.

The Anglican Diocese of Ottawa, having already been inspired to be part of solution by arranging to train over 20 clergy in naloxone administration, responded by launching free drug overdose prevention workshops for the public.

Our diocese has embraced the call to react quickly, open our doors, foster dialogue and enable solutions. Within an eight-week time frame it is expected that over 200 people will be equipped with a naloxone kit through one of our diocesan hosted events.

Each event is a partnership between the host church community, a local pharmacist who will distribute naloxone kits and train each attendee on how to use it, the local public health organisation who will provide insight on what to look for when identifying a drug overdose, and the local community resource centre which will provide support to adults, parents and youth who might be grappling with the knowledge that the risky use of opioid-based recreational drugs is on the increase.

Most of the attendees are not church parishioners but rather members of the broader public, many communicating a high level of gratitude that the church would play such an important leadership role in partnering with others to battle a crisis that is affecting a diversity of people in our communities.

The hope continues to be that lives are saved and that families, adults and youth become aware of the risks of opioid use, particularly counterfeit drugs purchased illegally. It is a work in progress and will take continued efforts of partners throughout our community.

As with any ministry work we do as the church we never know how the seeds we plant will make impact directly or indirectly. Just last week a car was stopped by Ottawa police and the officer quickly recognised that the driver was in the initial stages of an opioid overdose. Paramedics administered naloxone and stabilized the man as he was driven to the hospital. A life was saved by the naloxone kit. There will be more stories of the impact of naloxone throughout our communities but even just one story will inspire us to continue our work.

As the clergy person leading the diocesan response to this crisis I have been interviewed by many media reporters. An interesting question that has been posed to me each time is why the church would be involved in this issue when, according to the reporters, society would assume that religious institutions are solely focused on an individual’s spiritual life.

My reply to this question is that the church has always and will always be focused on the entire health and wellbeing of the people, families, youth and children who are both inside and outside our walls.

“The church participates in the journey of people’s lives from their birth to their death,” I tell them, “so when a crisis such as this demands action so that lives can be saved and journeys strengthened we have always, and will always, be part of that response.”

CONTACT: The Revd Monique Stone, Anglican Parish of Huntley, Carp, Ontario, Canada. Email huntleypriest@bellnet.ca.