‘The same sadness and more lives lost’

‘The same sadness and more lives lost’: Frontline workers reflect on 5 years of B.C.’s overdose crisis

“It’s tough days,” Guy Felicella says as B.C. marks the fifth anniversary of declaring the overdose crisis a public health emergency.

Felicella lived with addiction and found his way out and now works as a harm reduction advocate. He says it remains difficult to hear the monthly statistics on illicit overdose deaths provided by the province each month.

“It’s just heartbreaking that once a month, we continue to hear the same sadness and more lives lost,” he said. “These deaths are preventable.”

The numbers presented Wednesday by government officials on the sombre anniversary of the public health crisis are harrowing.

Since 2016 more than 7,000 people have died of an overdose.

Last year’s numbers were the worst on record, with 1,724 lives lost in B.C. in 2020. An additional 329 deaths occurred in the first two months of 2021.

Felicella points out the overdose crisis existed long before it was officially declared a public health emergency.

He said today reminds him of the 90s when the overdose crisis overlapped with the HIV/AIDS crisis.

“I watched many drug users not just die of drug overdoses, but also die of AIDS in the 90s,” he said.

“Today with COVID and the overdose crisis battling each other out, I see the eerie, familiar similarities of both crises and one gets all the attention and the other one doesn’t.”

Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of BC, says that while some may associate the overdose crisis with neighbourhoods like Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, it extends to every corner of the province.

“It’s really tough to see when a paramedic responds to a call or a dispatcher takes a call, whether it’s a young kid experimenting or whether it’s somebody that’s become addicted through mental health or other challenges that got them into a bad situation,” he said. 

“They’re all human beings.”

Clifford says that if people do use drugs, they should not do so alone. He also recommends using apps like Lifeguard that connect users to emergency services.

Felicella also advocates for harm reduction sites, which he says “not only save lives, they give them the ability to change lives.”

He speaks from experience. Felicella started using cannabis at age 12 before moving on to harder drugs. He spent nearly 20 years living in a two-block radius of the Downtown Eastside, hooked on heroin and trapped in the vicious cycle of addiction.

“I’ve been brought back to life six times,” he told Global News last year.

With just the clothes on his back and a pair of sandals, Felicella left the Downtown Eastside for Surrey in 2013, where he found a safe rooming house to live in and started rebuilding his life. He tried suboxone, an opioid replacement treatment, for nine months.

“Every time I continued to relapse, people welcomed me back and said, ‘Hey, you’ll do it next time and keep trying,’” recalled Felicella.

That continued compassion pushed him to succeed, and he eventually got clean.

Now he’s dedicated his life to helping others change their lives.

“The hardest step is just the first one,” he said.

“It’s just having the ability to just pick up the phone and tell someone you’re struggling. For a long time that was the hardest thing for for for me to do because I felt so much shame because of how society projects its views on people who use drugs.”

His message to people struggling with addiction is to reach out to him or others who can help.

“You’re not alone.”