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Fentanyl Overdose Survivors Are a Hidden Health Crisis

Brain damage, paralysis, and organ failure are just a few of the lasting problems some OD survivors take with them.

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Jul 27 2017, 12:00pm

Photo via Shutterstock

Being brought back from the brink of death during an overdose might be a second chance at life, but the aftermath can lead to a host of health issues for the person who's been saved. For Ken Davies in British Columbia, an overdose on fentanyl-laced cocaine this past New Year's left him disabled, with a partial leg that he may have amputated in the future.

Though Davies' experience is a rarity, the fact is that thousands and thousands of people survive overdoses. But we don't necessarily hear about that. We hear about the deaths. In 2016, the official opioid-related death toll was 2,458 in Canada—a number experts say is lower than the reality. But Davies' story is a glimpse into what can happen to those who come out the other side.

Landon, a 30-year-old who lives in Calgary, was also brought back from the brink. He had been using heroin that he did not know was laced with fentanyl.

Landon was shooting up around midnight in October 2016, went to bed, and awoke several hours later to find he had overdosed. After barely being able to call 911, he was taken to the hospital where he spent just over two months as an inpatient.

"This was actually something that affected me and messed me up," Landon told VICE. "I just never knew that you could get paralysis like that without breaking your spine or being in a car accident or something."

Dr. Keith Ahamad, a Vancouver-based addiction specialist who's been working with people who use drugs for over 15 years, said that brain damage is another after-effect he sees happen with people who've survived an opioid OD. This can be as severe as what is known as being "brain dead," but there's "a massive spectrum of those people who are down for a significant amount of time and would have a brain injury from lack of oxygen to the brain," including those who experience memory loss.

"I've seen so many patients who leave the hospital after an overdose… where everyone who knows them just knows that they're not right, they're not themselves anymore."

A lack of oxygen from slowed breathing during an OD can also cause the body to go into a toxic state, affecting other vital organs. Conditions such as kidney failure can occur, which Davies experienced.

Ahamad said he especially sees patients suffering after-effects when they've survived multiple overdoses. He also said it's important to keep in mind that people can have pre-existing health conditions before an OD.

Landon has been experiencing depression in the aftermath of his overdose in October.

He survived three overdoses; the first two happened in summer 2016, after which, he said, he felt back to his normal self. The most recent one in October is the one that left him with a number of health problems.

"I don't feel like the same person at all," he said. "I'm not in the same mind I was before."

Landon, like Davies, experienced nerve damage from being unconscious for hours, with his body stuck in position without movement. Landon's core area, such as his abs, has been affected. He also has to use a catheter and, so far since his OD in the fall, can't have sex.

"That's my most difficult struggle so far, no questions asked… I've always loved love, I always enjoyed having a relationship. I loved having a girlfriend. Having intimacy with someone, I have always had that in my life."

Though Landon said doctors have suggested Viagra before, he doesn't feel he can physically have sex. "I wanted to have kids—100 percent a dream of mine was to have my own little family someday," he said. Now, he said, he avoids getting close to women so he doesn't have to explain that he's unable to have sex.

The opioid crisis we're currently experiencing is affecting not just our generation, but could cause a ripple effect for those to come.

"The other side effect no one is talking about is that we have this whole generation where all these young people are dying who could potentially have had kids," Ahamad said. "[There's] a huge population dying, and the fallout from that, I think, is something that won't be told."

"We're essentially decimating a generation, it's pretty unbelievable."

For information on how to access drug addiction treatment programs in Canada, contact the provincial hotline numbers listed here.

Follow Allison Tierney on Twitter.

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