It’s been three years since Isabelle Fortier lost her daughter, Sara-Jane.
She had been alone in her University of Ottawa dorm room when she suffered an overdose due to fentanyl in her drug supply. In her grief, Fortier turned to educating herself, gaining a certification in drug treatment and prevention, to understand why her daughter died.
“If I had known all the things I know now, it might have changed something. It might not have,” she said. “She died of a toxic drug supply. That’s what killed her.”
But Fortier knows now what would have definitely saved her daughter’s life: naloxone, and someone who knew how to use it.
That’s why she’s welcoming the news that high school students across Canada will soon be learning how to administer naloxone nasally, in case of an opioid overdose. The opioid antidote can be used to temporarily counteract an overdose if a powerful opioid, like fentanyl, is ingested.
The new training will be initially deployed in select schools in Quebec, Alberta, Ontario and BC, before being expanded across the country.
“It’s like what we’ve been doing with sex education, or alcohol consumption,” Fortier said. “We need to tell the kids what they’re dealing with.”
Added to existing CPR, defibrillator training
The training will be provided by the Advanced Coronary Treatment (ACT) Foundation, which already coordinates free CPR and defibrillator training in schools across Canada.
Health and physical education teachers will be the first to learn the protocol, so they can then teach it to their students starting next school year, explained Sandra Clarke, the executive director of the ACT Foundation.
The plan is for students in Grade 9 (Secondary 3 in Quebec) to voluntarily receive the training, along with their existing CPR and defibrillator program.
Naloxone is available in many Quebec pharmacies free of charge.
With the growing opioid crisis showing no signs of slowing down, Clarke said the training is needed now more than ever.
At least 450 people died of a suspected opioid or drug overdose in Quebec last year, according to the INSPQ.
“We believe the training, and how to respond to a suspected opioid overdose, is important for teens, but it’s important for everyone,” Clarke said. “It’s like CPR training. You never know when you will encounter a life-saving emergency.”
Ayaan Nafees, a Montreal high school student, agrees. He said he will sign up when he can and will encourage his friends to do the same.
“At school — not everyone, but most people do drugs and stuff,” he said. “When you see someone collapse on the floor, you don’t want to just say ‘call 911’ and [wait until] they come later.”
“If students would know how to perform this, that would be better,” he said.
The right time to teach, says advocate
Jean-François Mary, of CACTUS Montréal — which, among its safe drug-use services, operates a needle-exchange center and a supervised injection site — said it’s the perfect age to teach kids about overdoses.
“Using drugs usually starts in high school … so it’s a good place to start,” he told CBC Montreal’s daybreak “You’ve got all these young people together and in school to train them, whereas when young adults are out in the community, it’s much harder [to reach them].”
It’s important that teenagers are the ones who have the tools, since “people are not going to turn up to their parents or the teacher and tell them that they are using drugs,” he explained.
“Especially young people, when they are at outside events — festivals and so on — they mind for their own group, for their own peers.”
Mary said that if no one intervenes in the case of an opioid overdose, the person will almost certainly die within three minutes. In contrast, with naloxone, the person is very likely to survive.
“[If they know what to do]their friend is going to be alive the next day, which is never going to be the case if the person is untrained.”
It’s something Fortier’s daughter, Sara-Jane, didn’t have. But Fortier, who now works with Moms Stop the Harm, a Canadian network for families who have lost loved ones to opioids, said she’s optimistic others could be protected.
“We can’t tell teenagers not to use. They’re going to be experimenting,” she said. “But they’ve got to be street smart… and helped at the right time, at the right moment, we save their lives.”