By Zachary Siegel 01/05/17
“Fentanyl is so potent. It only takes minutes without breathing and they’ve got brain complications.”
Doctors and paramedics in Canada say fentanyl overdose survivors are more likely to suffer from acute brain damage. The potency of fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opioid, is causing a spike in drug overdoses across Canada and the United States.
The longer an overdose victim remains unconscious, the longer oxygen is cut from vital parts of the brain, which may cause irreparable damage. After four minutes without oxygen, damage in the brain begins to occur.
While increasing access to naloxone is emphasized, there is not enough attention paid to rescue breathing or CPR to prevent brain damage, says Jon Deakin, a paramedic in Victoria, British Columbia. “We’re hearing so much about naloxone and how it’s the antidote, but it’s only one part of the equation,” Deakin told the Times Colonist last month.
Though there are no studies that document exactly how many overdose victims suffer from what’s called hypoxic brain injury, doctors and paramedics say anecdotally they’re seeing it more and more in their patients. One doctor thinks it’s present in as high as 90% of overdose survivors.
Dr. Del Dorscheid, who works in the intensive care unit at St. Paul’s Hospital in downtown Vancouver, an area ridden with fentanyl, said he is seeing more and more brain injuries caused by overdoses. “Fentanyl is so potent,” said Dr. Dorscheid, “it only takes minutes without breathing and they’ve got brain complications.”
Dorscheid estimates 90% of overdose patients he sees in the intensive care unit suffer from brain injury. The symptoms, he says, range in intensity from minor memory loss to complete loss of brain function. Paramedics say time is the critical factor here, and advocates are trying to come up with solutions to cut down on overdose response time.
The Ambulance Paramedics of British Columbia, for example, wants to station ambulances in areas that see the most overdoses. The quicker paramedics can respond to an overdose, the better they’re able to prevent potential brain injuries.
“It could take five or 10 minutes for an ambulance to arrive,” Heather Hobbs, AIDS Vancouver Island’s co-ordinator of harm reduction, told the Times Colonist. “It’s in those minutes that rescue breathing needs to happen.”
More supervised-consumption sites are coming to the province. In the meantime, temporary overdose prevention sites have been set up to mitigate the toll that fentanyl has had on the city.