Angie Staines was out on the streets of Edmonton one recent evening when she saw a young man on the pavement.
He was tucked in a corner between a fence and a wall, his crossed legs stretched out in front of him. His body was slumped forward, a typical posture for someone “nodding out” on drugs.
Ms. Staines knows the look too well. She leads a team of volunteers who patrol the city helping vulnerable drug users.
They hand out snacks, water and clean needles. Just in case they find someone in trouble, they carry oxygen and naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses.
She named her group the 4B Harm Reduction Society. The 4B means For Brandon. Brandon is her eldest son, who is 27 and has been using drugs since he was a teen.
Every time she sees someone in the throes of an overdose, she says to herself: “Please don’t be Brandon.”
Ms. Staines, 46, had Brandon when she was just 18 and raised him on her own. A handful from the start, he went on medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder when he was still in kindergarten. Doctors later diagnosed him as bipolar.
In his mid-teens he found an outlet for his energy: soccer. He would play several times a week and got really good. Ms. Staines would stand on the sidelines cheering like mad.
Mother and son bonded over music and food. She loved Nirvana; he became a big fan, too. His favourite song was Heart-Shaped Box. At her side in the kitchen, he learned to make a mean fettuccine alfredo.
Then an accident knocked him off course. Brandon was at the park with his little brother. Another kid was fooling around with a BB gun. A pellet struck Brandon in the eye. The doctors said he could lose it if he kept playing soccer. He had to quit the game he loved.
He started trying serious drugs and was soon using OxyContin, the addictive painkiller commonly known as “oxy.” He left home at 17, then went to Vancouver to look for his father, who was himself dependent on methamphetamines. There, Brandon fell into heavy drug use on the Downtown Eastside.
After five years, he came home. “All my friends are dying,” he told his mother. He managed to stay off drugs for 18 months but, as so often happens, had a relapse and started up again.
By then, fentanyl had taken over as the king of street drugs. Many times more powerful than heroin, it has killed thousands of Canadians. Edmonton had 59 overdose deaths this April alone.
Ms. Staines says Brandon has overdosed more times than she can count – at least 10 since the start of the pandemic, which only made the the crisis worse. She wakes up every morning wondering if this is the day her son won’t.
Her grief is mixed with anger. On top of patrolling with her team, she campaigns for drug-policy reform. Her Twitter feed burns with rage at Alberta’s United Conservative Party government, which she blames for treating addiction as a moral failing instead of a chronic condition. (The government insists it is devoting many millions of dollars to helping people like Brandon recover.)
Brandon spends his days hustling for the drugs that keep him from getting dopesick, the street word for the torment of withdrawal. Ms. Staines manages to see him only once in a while. For his latest birthday she bought him a cake. They ate it together in a crummy motel room. He wore a party hat that said “Birthday Boy.” It was the most normal thing they had done in years.
It was about 8 on the evening of July 8 that Ms. Staines saw the man in the street. He was wearing jeans and running shoes. His head was tilted down, so she couldn’t see his face. She went up to check on him. As soon as she got close, she knew.
He had his sweatshirt sleeve rolled up to inject his drugs. A tattoo on his forearm said: “My mom is the heartbeat that keeps me alive.” Brandon had it inked there when he was sober and feeling grateful for her help.
She jumped into action, her training as a street worker and nursing student kicking in. She gave him a poke and pinched his arm in case he was just sleeping it off. When he didn’t respond, she put a pulse oximeter on his finger. His oxygen level was dangerously low.
She clapped an oxygen mask on his face. “Brandon,” she said, “it’s Mom, it’s Mom. Wake up, you’ve got to wake up. Take a breath, take a breath.”
When he still didn’t respond, she took out a needle and gave him a naloxone shot in the left leg. She was kneeling next to him now. His drooping head was leaning against her. She whispered in his ear. “Come on, Brandon, Mom’s here. Wake up, wake up. Mom’s here, it’s going to be okay.
“I love you. It’s Mom. Come on!”
Finally he came to. Seeing her there beside him, he wailed a long “mooommm” and started to cry.
Whether the experience will change things for Brandon, his mother can’t say. He entered a detox program designed to help wean him off street drugs, but left after two or three days, calling her screaming and sobbing about how hard it was. She knows the road ahead is rocky.
For now, she is just grateful she was around when he needed her. “The day he was born I held him in my arms and promised I’d always be there. This will never change,” she tweeted after the rescue.
It took Brandon a few minutes to regain his senses after Ms. Staines revived him that evening. Then he got up, talked to her awhile, gave her a hug, cried a little more and walked away.
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