Roxanne Shuttleworth was in shock.
Her 31-year-old daughter had called her on the phone to explain that she and a friend had overdosed on a drug that, unknown to them, was cut with carfentanil, a deadly synthetic opioid that authorities say is 10,000 times stronger than morphine and 100 times stronger than its cousin, fentanyl.
Her daughter was in a hospital in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she had been brought in as “an unknown,” or a Jane Doe – too ill to communicate with the medical team that was trying to keep her alive. Once she regained consciousness, she called her mother and told her that she had died but that doctors had then saved her with an opioid overdose antidote known as naloxone.
“She had died, and she was back,” Shuttleworth told The Washington Post. “I just immediately said, ‘I’ll be there. I’ll be right there.'”
It was Nov. 7 when Shuttleworth’s daughter overdosed on a deadly drug cocktail that has police and medical personnel across Canada and the United States alarmed. “There’s a wave coming, and it’s scary,” Shuttleworth said. “I’ve yet to meet a family who is not affected by drug addiction. I’m talking about people from every walk of life. It’s everywhere.”
Shuttleworth, who is indigenous, said she worries not only about her own daughter but about others in their communities. She said the reason she is sharing her daughter’s story is because she wants to raise awareness about the threats from opioids, specifically carfentanil. “It’s amazing how many people don’t now about it – that it’s being cut with other drugs, and how dangerous it is,” she said.
The 55-year-old Winnipeg mother said she did not know which drug her daughter and her daughter’s friend thought they were about to use earlier this month but that they had no idea it was apparently mixed with carfentanil, a drug that was typically used as elephant tranquilizer before humans began ingesting it, with deadly results.
Her daughter, whom Shuttleworth declined to name, said that a friend had tried it first, tasting the blend of drugs from the tip of his pinkie. Then, Shuttleworth’s daughter did the same.
Moments later, Shuttleworth said, her daughter’s friend was leaning over. “She jokingly pushed him and said, ‘What are you doing?'” Shuttleworth said. “Then he fell back on her. His were lips were turning blue.”
The daughter called 911; when paramedics arrived, she started to collapse. Both were rushed to a nearby hospital, where Shuttleworth’s daughter was given naloxone every two hours. The friend died of an overdose, Shuttleworth said.
In the hospital, Shuttleworth said: “I asked her what happened. How had she ended up here. My main question was why? She said she and her friend tried it together, but they didn’t realize. She was very sick, very very sick. She was hardly speaking. . . . They had to keep her on the antidote until her system had cleared the drug.”
Her daughter has since been released from the hospital, Shuttleworth said. “She’s grieving right now. Her friend didn’t make it, ” the mother said. “She has a bit of survivor’s guilt. It’s an emotional time right now.”
Officials said they cannot be certain the drug taken by the daughter and friend was cut with carfentanil, though they presume it was.
Both Canada and the United States have been battling a fast-moving and far-reaching opioid epidemic. Canada is reported to be the second-highest opioid consumer in the world, according to the Canadian Medical Association Journal. The Canadian Institute for Health Information and the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse released a report last week about the country’s opioid epidemic, which has led to a spike in overdose hospitalizations. In 2015, about 2,000 Canadians died from opioid overdoses, according to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, though experts say that these numbers are merely estimaties.
Carfentanil, a synthetic opioid that is one of the deadliest on the market, has been used as an elephant tranquilizer. When mixed with other drugs, such as heroin, it gives users a more potent, longer-lasting high. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration recently issued a warning on carfentanil, which, it said, has been “linked to a significant number of overdose deaths” across the United States.
“Carfentanil is surfacing in more and more communities,” DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg said. “We see it on the streets, often disguised as heroin. It is crazy dangerous. Synthetics such as fentanyl and carfentanil can kill you.”
In Canada – specifically, Manitoba’s capital Winnipeg – authorities are seeing an increase in fentanyl and its deadlier cousin, carfentanil. They first found carfentanil in Winnipeg last summer during a raid at a hotel room, according to the Canadian Press.
“Where before a paramedic would go to one or two overdoses a year, now we’re seeing firefighter-paramedics attending to overdoses every single day,” Alex Forrest, with the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, told the Canadian Press. “Our guys and girls are going out to these calls and going to these events, and sometimes we have two or three individuals that we’re reviving that are on the verge of cardiac arrest because of the fentanyl use.”
Authorities in Winnipeg have urged opioid users, as well as their families and friends, to get naloxone overdose prevention kits, which are available at local pharmacies without prescriptions.
Bronwyn Penner-Holigroski, a spokeswoman for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, said each time there is a suspected overdose in Winnipeg, emergency personnel try to treat the patient based on the symptoms. “That may include collecting diagnostic information, ventilation, starting an IV and/or using pharmaceutical intervention (such as naloxone),” she said in a statement to The Post.
Margaret Thompson, the medical director of the Ontario Poison Centre, told The Post that medical personnel may work on the presumption that severe opioid overdoses are from carfentanil, but hospitals in Canada have no way to test for it. It may be that the only facility that can do conclusive testing for the drug is a laboratory available to Canadian law enforcement agencies, Thompson said.
In the case involving Shuttleworth’s daughter, Thompson said, “we can only say it was a very potent opioid. We cannot say it was carfentanil.” However, she said, based on reports that the woman and her friend had such a severe reaction to the drug after tasting only a small amount from their finger tips, “it suggested it was very potent.”
Shuttleworth said her daughter experienced a trauma when she was 12 years old and soon started struggling with drug addiction.
“Addictions are just a symptoms; there’s always a deeper trauma,” Shuttleworth said. “It’s basically taught me faith because, as any family member of an addict will tell you, there’s really nothing you can do – just support and love without enabling. There have been days and months and years where she’s been in God’s hands, and that’s what kept me going.”
Shuttleworth said her daughter had never overdosed before and that although she has recovered, she does not know how long it will be before her daughter starts using again.
“There’s no shame and blame in addiction,” the mother said. “It’s a symptom of something far deeper.”