Fentanyl Crisis (Audio)

Fentanyl addiction rocks Amherstburg family to its core

CBC News Posted: Mar 22, 2017 7:30 AM ET Last Updated: Mar 22, 2017 7:30 AM ET

Patty MacLellan and her daughter Holly.

Patty MacLellan and her daughter Holly. (Derek Spalding/CBC)

After working her shift at the casino, one summer night back in 2015, Patty MacLellan arrived home to her worst nightmare.

It was just after midnight on July 17 when she walked through her front door. That’s when she saw, straight ahead of her, a body stretched out motionless on her bathroom floor.

She always feared this moment would come. Her son had been an addict for years. Just that week, she kicked him out of the house because she didn’t want to find him dead on her floor.

But, on that night, MacLellan still had hope her son was just passed out. She shook the body as it lay face down on the floor, saying things like “get up” and “come on” — no response.

Talking on her cellphone to a 911 dispatcher, MacLellan turned the body over to begin resuscitation. That’s when she realized she wasn’t trying to save her son. She was staring into the face of her son-in-law, Rob Cook.

“It took me probably seconds to realize, but it felt like forever,” she said. “My brain couldn’t wrap around the fact that it wasn’t (him), that it was Rob laying there.”

Living a nightmare

Rob’s death tore through the very fabric of his family. His wife, Holly MacLellan, had never seen him do drugs. He had even given up drinking and smoking cigarettes.

He had everything going for him, including taking over as head of his dad’s moving company when his dad eventually retired.

Glen and Rob Cook

Rob Cook, left, stands next to his father Glen Cook. (Glen Cook/Facebook)

“It took me a long time to grasp the concept of what had happened,” Holly said. “Rob didn’t do drugs.”

Rob’s dad, Glen Cook, echoed those comments. He knows his son had smoked pot when he was a teenager, but he never heard about Rob doing anything serious, like fentanyl.

“His family, his livelihood was the most important thing,” Glen told CBC News.

Glen Cook

Glen Cook’s son, Rob, died of a fentalyn overdose in 2015. (Derek Spalding/CBC)

And the tragedy continued. The day after Rob died, Patty’s son — whose name has been concealed to protect his identity — overdosed on fentanyl as well. Relatives managed to intervene in time and saved his life.

“It took him about two to three days to come back around from that overdose,” she said. Doctors “didn’t know what to expect. What kind of damage it would have done.”

Opioid health crisis

Rob’s death, and the years of drug abuse she’s been exposed to with her son, has made Patty see the vicious affects of fentanyl.

She wants other parents to know about those risks, so she’s starting to talk about it. She also spends plenty of time on social media sites, discussing the dangers of the drug.

She’s quickly learned she’s not alone.

Families throughout Windsor and Essex County have been grappling with opioid addiction in recent years as overdose figures have skyrocketed. Earlier this month, health officials described the problem as a health crisis, prompting the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit to move on an opioid strategy to curb its use.

Figures show opioid-related deaths shot up by almost 190 per cent between 2008 and 2015. Nineteen people in Windsor died after using opioids in 2015. In Essex County, another 24 people died because of the drug.

An opioid strategy can’t come soon enough for people like Patty. If officials can reduce opioid availability, she says, then people like Rob might still be alive and people like her son would have access to one less drug.

“There are a lot of things that need to be looked at,” she said. “A lot of things need to change.”

Patty MacLellan

Patty MacLellan openly discusses the addiction that has strained her family for years, hoping others can learn from her experience. (Derek Spalding/CBC)

Glen didn’t even know what fentanyl was when he went to the hospital back in 2015 and found out how his son had died. He wants to see the federal and provincial governments find ways to control when and how the drug is prescribed.

The health unit’s report also outlined how often opioids were given to patients, with nearly 28,000 people in Windsor-Essex receiving them through the Ontario Drug Benefit in 2015.

“I just couldn’t believe how the government could (allow doctors) to put that out there without putting more restrictions,” Glen said.

Addiction shaming

Patty hopes parents talk about any addiction issues they have in their family, instead of hiding it out of shame.

“People hide addiction,” she said. “My son’s an addict, and I haven’t been hiding it anymore. I post things on Facebook. I let people know. I put it out there. This happens, this is happening right here in Amherstburg. It’s here.”

Her son has been in and out of detoxification programs for years, but since Rob’s death, his addiction has only worsened. He’s spent months living on the street.

Patty occasionally hears from him when he wants to get some money from her. It’s hard to refuse him, but she won’t give him cash. Instead, she offers to help.

“It’s devastating. Every single day, I wait for a phone call to tell me to come and identify him in the morgue,” she said. “I wake up thinking: Is today the day?”