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Dr. Darryl Gebien is a former emergency physician who kicked a life threatening fentanyl addiction. (Julien Gignac/The Globe and Mail)
Dr. Darryl Gebien is a former emergency physician who kicked a life threatening fentanyl addiction. (Julien Gignac/The Globe and Mail)

Former fentanyl addict steps ‘out of the shadows’ to fight Canadian epidemic Add to ...

Dr. Darryl Gebien will never forget the look on the nurses’ faces during 32 hellish hours he spent in a drug rehabilitation centre without fentanyl in November, 2014.

“They had nothing but fright in their eyes when they looked at me,” he said, tears starting to roll. “[I was] green-faced, skin and bones and hyperventilating. Shakes, chills, tremors, cold sweats. It was like a Jupiter-eye thunderstorm going on in my head.”

But the worst was yet to come. After seven weeks spent detoxifying, the draw of the drug was too strong to ignore: The Barrie, Ont., emergency doctor flirted with death after surreptitiously getting his hands on fentanyl again. He woke up in a bone-dry shower stall with paraphernalia strewn everywhere, his horrified wife standing above him.

Read more: A Killer High: How Canada got addicted to fentanyl

Read more: How opioid abuse takes a rising financial toll on Canada’s health-care system

“I titrated my dose to see where I was on the tolerance scale,” he said. “Then I lost my judgment. I slipped. I was high. You know you shouldn’t be doing this, but you’re so entombed in the nasty life. You become a slave to the drug.”

It will be two years this winter since Dr. Gebien’s close encounter with death – time spent clean, but dealing with the professional and criminal consequences of his addiction. In recent weeks, he has “come out of the shadows” to raise awareness about the dangers of fentanyl, an opiate up to 100 times stronger than morphine that is intended to ease the pain of those suffering from chronic illnesses.

Fentanyl addiction has reached epidemic status in Canada. An investigation conducted by The Globe and Mail found that federal and provincial governments are not doing enough to prevent doctors from overprescribing the substance. Among its findings: In 2015, doctors wrote enough prescriptions for one out of two Canadians. In Ontario alone, 173 people died from fentanyl use (up by 28 per cent) in 2014, according to figures produced by Ontario’s Office of the Chief Coroner.

In Dr. Gebien’s case, it started eight years ago with Percocet used to treat acute back pain, something “so simple,” he said. “Benign.” He switched to fentanyl once these ran dry. The lack of a social network in Barrie and stress at home and at work compounded the issue, so he began self-medicating, he said. This is when the drug really took hold, exponentially worsening everything in his life. “It was a maladaptive way of dealing with stress.”

His addiction eventually caused him to face the law. He has a slew of charges (72) that include forging fentanyl-patch prescriptions and trafficking drugs.

A call to the police dialled by a local pharmacist culminated in his arrest in November, 2014. After attending rehab, he was arrested again in January, 2015. Police showed up with a battering ram at his house; his three kids watched as he was escorted away in handcuffs, he said. He is currently on bail.

“This was my bottom,” he said of his second arrest. “This was finally the end.”

Dr. Gebien’s trial is in its preliminary stages, said criminal defence lawyer Mitchell Eisen, who recently took over the case from lawyer Marie Henein. “I’m new to the file … but will certainly entertain some discussions with the Crown to see if there’s a middle ground to resolve it.”

When Dr. Gebien could no longer conceal the truth of his addiction or the charges that followed, he forfeited his practice as an emergency physician at the Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre in Barrie. He has agreed to not practise by following terms and conditions outlined by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario.

“The most recent practice restriction, namely that he has ceased to practise medicine in all jurisdictions at the current time, means that he has made a binding promise not to practise medicine in any place in the world,” said Kathryn Clarke, senior communications co-ordinator at the college. “We monitor criminal proceedings that pertain to physicians and take action as necessary depending on the outcome.”

Dr. Gebien exudes regret when recounting his turbulent past and remains reticent about what happened years ago when the police showed up at his door.

“I don’t want to blame the drug,” he said. “I blame me. It was my fault. It was a series of bad decisions mixed in with this … addiction.”

Dr. Gebien, who now lives with his father in a downtown Toronto condo (he and his wife are in the process of getting a divorce), has attended 12-step groups and learned to be more socially engaged. He made a speech about his fentanyl experiences at Toronto Recovery Day on Sept. 18, a nationwide event helping to replace the stigma attached to recovering addicts with optimism through dialogue.

Dr. Gebien is also working on a stress and addiction-management presentation called Life and Living that he hopes will be introduced to high-school, university and medical-school students. A meeting has been arranged with the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto to discuss the idea, he said.

“It’s going to help educate young doctors about the problems associated with prescribing narcotics, opiates in particular,” he said. “It starts with the prescribers. They’re the gatekeepers.”

As for his medical career, he hopes to become an addictionist. “That’s where I see my own future. Whether I’m a physician or not, I’ll get back into medicine one day, it’s just a matter of when.”

Most importantly, he wants his story to resonate with others, he said: that they too can overcome addiction and rebuild their lives.

“I’m a heck of a lot stronger than I was before. The feeling right now is euphoria. This is emulating what I was after with drug use, but so much better. This is consistent. It doesn’t go away.”

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