In response to a lack of treatment for patients who struggle with substance use, a local doctor opened the Comox Valley Addictions Clinic in April.
Dr. Eva Hemmerich leads a three-person team at the clinic on Cliffe Avenue in Courtenay. It offers Opioid Agonist Therapy (OAT), a treatment for addiction to fentanyl and other opioids. Therapy involves the use of opioid agonists Suboxone, methadone and Kadian, as well as anti-craving medications for alcohol. These medications help prevent withdrawal and reduce cravings for opioid drugs.
Hemmerich’s team includes Gloria Henry, who works the front office and reception area, and peer support worker Sam Franey, who educates people about Naloxone use, and distributes harm reduction supplies and test strips to determine if benzodiazepines are in fentanyl. Together, the team has created a welcoming and friendly environment.
“People are so appreciative. We want them to feel welcome, and respected and cared for,” said Hemmerich, who also works at the Comox Valley Nursing Centre.
She said no other clinics, including the Health Connections Clinic at her workplace, have been accepting new OAT patients. After failing to obtain funding to expand the service at the nursing centre, she opened the CVAC at 1959 Cliffe Ave. She is grateful to Dr. Anna Kindy, an addictions physician in Campbell River, who owns the property.
“It’s frustrating because everybody talks about the opioid crisis, but there’s very little action to address it,” Hemmerich said, noting more than five people die in B.C. each day from overdose. “There’s more overdoses than ever right now…Substance use can happen to anyone. It could be you have a snowboarding accident, and you have an injury, you’re put on painkillers, and all of a sudden you’re hooked.”
From January to March, she said B.C. had twice as many overdoses this year, compared to the same time frame in 2020. The deaths have mostly been men who were using fentanyl alone at home.
“It’s unpredictable,” Hemmerich said in reference to the supply of toxic street drugs. “It’s so concentrated. You can’t decipher what’s in it.”
Some drugs might contain benzodiazepines, which lower a person’s breathing and increase the risk of overdose.
“That’s how people die from overdose of fentanyl, their breathing shuts down,” Hemmerich said. “Naloxone can revive a fentanyl overdose, but with benzos, we don’t have a safe antidote to use.”
Along with those who inject, Franey said people who smoke drugs are also overdosing and dying. He said the situation has worsened with COVID, which has caused isolation, which in turn leads to depression and further drug usage.
He’s only 37, but Franey had used drugs for 24 years, everything from alcohol to cocaine. He was a tradesman and would be high at the worksite. He wound up on the street, and at one point attempted suicide. When he started injecting, he hid it from everyone.
“There’s that stigma, even in the drug world,” said Franey, who for years had bumps on his arm until he found someone to show him how to properly inject.
He said recovery is an ongoing process that involves many pieces, such as establishing friendships with people who don’t use.
“It took me a long time to stop relapsing constantly,” Franey said. “I’m not out of the woods. I still struggle from time to time. The cravings do come on. My addiction is lifelong. Addiction doesn’t just go away, you learn how to manage it.”
The Comox Valley Addictions Clinic operates Monday and Wednesday from 9-5 p.m. at 1959 Cliffe Ave. Patients may be referred by a health care provider, or may self-refer.
For more information, call (250) 331-6333 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Other local services include:
•Overdose Prevention Site (OPS) or supervised consumption, offered at Island Health Mental Health & Substance Use, 941-C England Ave.
Call (250) 331-8524, Ext.68545
Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Walk-in weekends can be pre-arranged.
•CV Mental Health and Substance Use, 101-1742 Cliffe Ave.
Main line: (250) 331-8524; Substance Use Team: (250) 331-8642
Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
•Mobile phone apps for people who use alone: Lifeguard and Be Safe