Donna Bridgman, wearing a shirt with son Leif’s photo, outside St. Barnabas Church in New Westminster. Leif’s ashes are in a burial niche at the church. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

She warned her son about toxic drugs, then he was dead

Donna Bridgman’s son died at the age of 38 in Vancouver

By Jen St. Denis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee

The last time Donna Bridgman saw her son, she warned him about something she’d heard on the radio.

“I said, ‘Leif, I was just listening to the radio, you have to be so careful,’” Bridgman said. “They’re talking on the radio about how many people have overdosed because of the drugs. The drugs aren’t coming through the border, and they’re selling crap on the street.”

It was a Friday in late March, soon after British Columbia had largely shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Donna had picked Leif up to do some shopping. In the car, Leif told his mom he’d heard the warnings and knew about the risk.

“I thought, ‘OK, good, he knows,”’ said Bridgman. “But I know he’s an addict, so that doesn’t necessarily stop people from using.”

Leif lived at Taylor Manor on Boundary Road in East Vancouver, a supportive housing building for people with mental illness. He was an aspiring actor who recorded videos of himself doing monologues and skits. He loved doing karaoke. He worked in the film industry as an extra and volunteered at the Overdose Prevention Society in the Downtown Eastside.

Bridgman had raised Leif on her own and was close to her son. But he was 38, with a girlfriend, and after years of helping him manage his bipolar and severe anxiety diagnoses, she was trying to give him space and let him live his own life.

She spoke to him briefly on Friday afternoon after the shopping trip but wasn’t surprised when he didn’t answer his phone on Saturday.

Her concern grew when he didn’t pick up on Sunday. She called the front desk at Taylor Manor and asked staff to check on Leif. When she didn’t hear back, she drove down to his building. That’s when she saw the police cars.

“Police were outside his apartment door, and they told me he had passed,” Bridgman said.

She asked if she could see him and eventually was allowed to go into Leif’s apartment.

“I was able to touch him, and I hugged him, and I just caressed his body and his head, because I knew that’s the last time I was going to feel him,” she said.

B.C. has been dealing with an opioid overdose epidemic since 2016, when fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, began to be found in more and more drugs.

The province made headway on its overdose problem in 2019, with a dramatic decline in deaths that year.

But the pandemic has reversed that trend. Overdose deaths started rising as soon as COVID-19 restrictions were introduced. Fewer people have been using overdose prevention sites, while illicit drugs have become more toxic as border closures disrupted supply.

More people have died of overdoses in the first eight months of 2020 than the entire year of 2019. Although the pandemic continues to be a grave threat as positive cases rise, overdoses have claimed five times as many lives as COVID-19.

Like Bridgman, Erica Grant said goodbye to her son one Friday night this spring and never saw him alive again. In a previous interview with The Tyee, Grant recounted how she called her son, Duncan, repeatedly on his phone and asked staff at his supportive housing building in the Downtown Eastside to check on him.

Grant wondered if things would be different if she could have checked on her son at the time, the building was under a strict no visitor rule to prevent COVID-19 transmission.

Bridgman has similar thoughts. If she had kept calling that night, or insisted staff at his building check on him, would Leif still be alive?

Leif didn’t use opioids — he used crack cocaine, Bridgman said. But fentanyl has been showing up more and more in stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine. The BC Coroners Service says it has been finding “extreme” concentrations of fentanyl in people who have died of overdoses.

“The toxicology report said that he had some marijuana, cocaine and fentanyl in his system,” Bridgman said.

Donna Bridgman wears the image of her son Leif close to her heart.

Bridgman said it was hard to determine what came first, Leif’s addiction or his mental illness. As a teenager, Leif struggled with alopecia, a condition that causes people to lose their hair. For him, that happened when he was 12.

Bridgman thinks that experience might have contributed to his addiction.

“That pain of feeling like a weirdo, a freak,” Bridgman said. “Just feeling like an odd-looking person.”

The overdose prevention site where Leif volunteered in the Downtown Eastside is a site where substance users can go to use drugs while staff or trained volunteers are present to give medical help in case of an overdose.

But there was no safe consumption room at Taylor Manor, located on the border between Vancouver and Burnaby, and there are currently no overdose prevention sites in Vancouver outside of the downtown area, according to resources provided by Vancouver Coastal Health.

The Kettle Society, which operates Taylor Manor, confirmed it does not have a dedicated safe consumption room. “But residents who use drugs can do so in their rooms, are provided with harm reduction supplies and encouraged to never use alone,” Nancy Keough, executive director of the non-profit, told The Tyee in an email.

“If they are using alone, a staff member can be available to check on them after five minutes to ensure that they are all right.”

Keough added that while the B.C. government has acted effectively to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, more needs to be done to stop people from dying of overdoses.

“During this election period, I encourage voters to ask their local candidates how they plan to address the overdose crisis should they be elected,” Keough said. “We need to show them that this is a top priority for voters and that the public expects bold and effective solutions from government in order to address this crisis.”

The province has announced funding to expand the number of overdose prevention sites in B.C., including 12 sites for people who smoke drugs. And on Sept. 16, the B.C. government announced it was dramatically expanding access to safe supply programs, which provide prescription drugs that can be substituted for illicit drugs.

After Leif’s death, Bridgman placed his ashes in a burial niche at St. Barnabas Church in New Westminster. Bridgman has close connections with the church: Leif attended daycare at St. Barnabas as a child, and Bridgman now manages the church’s thrift store.

On Aug. 31, Bridgman went to the unveiling of a memorial wall dedicated to overdose victims in the Downtown Eastside. At first, she wasn’t going to speak. But then she started thinking about what Leif would want.

“I was a single mom from the beginning,” Bridgman said. “My son gave me the courage to move forward in life, to do all the things I needed to do because I had him.

“I just felt like I had to speak on behalf of my son. That day, no matter how hard it was, and I just had to speak on his behalf. And I need to continue to promote him and support him until the day I die.”

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