A grieving Tiny Township woman doesn’t want other parents to have to go through the pain she’s experienced these last six months.
Angela Vos is working to reduce the stigma surrounding opioid overdoses and what she sees as their close correlation to mental health and addictions issues.
Vos lost her 26-year-old son Jordan Sheard in June.
And now, after getting through the first Christmas without him, she will mark another sad milestone later this month on what would have been Jordan’s 27th birthday.
“Though he is 26 forever, I feel it a great time to pay respect to the overdose crisis,” Vos says.
“We want to come together in unity in our grief to change things. We can’t bring our loved ones back from the dead, but we can change things for the future.”
Vos wants municipalities like Midland, which saw at least two people die of suspected overdoses last month, to recognize the growing scourge that is caused by dangerous and addictive opiates such as fentanyl and remember those who have died.
“I have decided that I would like to honour the people that have fallen and continuously honour them,” says Vos, who placed two crosses near Midland town hall recently to commemorate the most recent overdose deaths.
“Midland has had so many loved ones who lost their lives from drugs. Our community is drowning in all types of drugs and we are losing our children, rapidly, painfully and quietly.”
Jordan, who grew up in Barrie and also lived in Springwater and Orillia, died of an overdose in a Lindsay jail where he was sent after threatening to kill himself. He had hidden a large quantity of heroin in his body before arriving at the correctional centre.
“Jordan should never have been in jail,” Vos says, adding her son also suffered from a brain injury and a seizure disorder.
"We just asked for a mental health officer, a wellness check, because he was trying to kill himself. We’d like to see mental health taken care of instead of locking them in a cell.”
Vos, who has worked in healthcare, including as a PSW in palliative care, thoroughly researched mental health disorders and self harm in recent years to better understand her son.
And she vividly remembers the call she answered last summer that no parent ever wants to receive.
“He (Jordan) was medically compromised in a lot of ways,” she says, her voice breaking, "but no way was I expecting them to tell me that he was dead. And that he was already in a body bag and sent to the morgue for autopsy. It was really, really harsh.”
But this wasn't the first time, something like this had happened or the first time he had to be admitted to hospital for his own safety.
On one such occasion, Vos says she heard a strange noise and went to Jordan’s room to investigate. Upon entering, she realized her son had overdosed and had stopped breathing. She immediately called 911, performing CPR while she waited for the paramedics to arrive.
He was rushed to Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre in Barrie where he would spend the next four and a half months.
“He was on life-support for eight days,” Vos says. “I stayed at the hospital for four and a half months every day and all night. Nobody else did his personal care. I did all of his care, all of his rehabilitation...teaching him how to walk, talk and eat again.”
Reducing the stigma and showing people that others care is the only way forward and ensure more parents don’t receive similar calls like the one she got last summer, according to Vos.
Vos also wants smaller municipalities to make it mandatory for all pharmacies to carry Naloxone, which is used to block the effects of opioids. It is commonly used to counter decreased breathing in opioid overdose.
“I believe in a small town like this it should be even more available and maybe we should start considering general stores as well,” she says. “In fact, Naloxone should be more available than Tylenol.
“Midland has a significant problem and the opioid crisis has made a rapid increase this year.”
And those working in the health and social-work fields continue working on the problem.
While the efforts of the Simcoe Muskoka Opioid Strategy (SMOS) to address the opioid crisis have been somewhat interrupted by COVID-19, critical work continues amidst a worsening local situation.
“The pandemic may have pushed the opioid crisis out of the spotlight, but the crisis and the burden associated with it has not gone away; in fact, COVID-19 has made a difficult situation even more challenging,” explains Dr. Lisa Simon, associate medical officer of health for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, and chair of the SMOS Steering Committee.
“Opioid use, addiction and overdose is an urgent and complex problem in our region and the work of SMOS continues to be a high priority as we work towards reducing the harms of opioids in our communities.”
Preliminary data shows that there were 83 confirmed and probable opioid-related deaths in Simcoe Muskoka for the first eight months of 2020, which was 51 per cent higher than the average of 55 deaths from January to August for the previous three years. SMOS partner agencies have also identified an increase in overdoses among clients.
Vos says addictions are not something that will just go away since many of those suffering with addictions also suffer from mental health issues.
“I have seen recovery and know that it’s possible and that these people are all valuable people,” she says, adding Jordan's self-harm often led to severe welting and bruising, including one time where he repeatedly smashed his face with a coconut until it broke into pieces.
“Prevention is the only key to stopping it. Till the day we decriminalize and are able to provide safe supply, we cannot stop talking and engaging the youth.
“Some people believe that addictions are a choice, but it’s actually a medical condition and can be very genetic. We need to help people understand, but we also need to support them if they’ve made that choice. Recovery is possible and it’s miraculous.”
And for those who never recover, Vos says it’s essential to support them too so that they know people care.
“Justice for Jordan does not just stand up for my son, but shows we care about everyone," she says. "We care about the opioid crisis and we also care about the people that have died unjustly.
“It’s a sad reality going from giving care to people in healthcare my entire life to standing up against the very people that have caused the stigma.”
But Vos says education involving health and safety officials also needs to be improved so they show a better understanding and more compassion when dealing with close relatives of those who are suffering or have died due to their addictions.
As an example, she says officials showed very little compassion when they delivered the news her son was dead.
“I was extremely strong because I'd done palliative care and how that was delivered was just, it was actually horrifying,” she says, adding she heard from a doctor and nurse after the fact, who apologized for the way she was treated and the manner in which the news was delivered.
“And their team has put together a palliative plan so that they continuously remember that people are suffering. I just want people to keep reviewing that and understand that this is super important."
Vos says being more accepting of others' struggles is the only real solution.
"It is hard for us all to understand that this is a mental illness," she says, "because for years, we've always pushed people away with mental illness, saying 'Oh my god, they're crazy.'
"People don't want to be around them, right? But I see the only way to actually solving some of these mental illnesses is rehabilitation and caring about them. Because by using the stigma and pushing them down, and making them feel like crap, it's only going to make it worse."