Petra and Richard Schulz lost their youngest son Danny in 2014 after an accidental fentanyl poisoning (overdose). Danny was a thoughtful 25-year-old who loved to cook, play music and spend time outdoors. He was also battling opioid addiction.
“We made a decision when we lost Danny that we weren’t hiding it anymore, we were going to be open about this,” said Richard. “It’s an epidemic and a crisis, the number of deaths is too high.”
Richard is a professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Pediatrics in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and Petra
is an instructor at Grant MacEwan University. Since losing their son, the couple have been involved in advocacy work. They will be speaking at Unraveling the Opioid crisis, a free public lecture hosted by the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute
and the Neuroscience Graduate Student Association at the U of A on March 15, as part of Brain Awareness Week activities.
“I realized that his death and all these other deaths are preventable,” said Petra. “That is what propelled me into advocacy. Grief is not something that is silent and private. I want to honour his legacy.”
Unraveling the Opioid Crisis
Featuring presentations from:
Dr. Cameron Wild
Public Health Perspective & Psychosocial Aspects of Opioid Addiction
Dr. Krishna Balachandra
Clinical Perspective on Opioids & Addiction
Ms. Nicole E. Burma
The Basic Science of Opioids in the Brain
Dr. Richard and Mrs. Petra
A Family’s Story of Loss: Advocacy for Harm Reduction
March 15, 2018
Lecture starts at 6 p.m.
Reception to follow
Allard Lecture Theatre
Katz Group Centre for Pharmacy and Health Research
Admission is free, all are welcome.
Petra is the co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm
, an advocacy group started after an increase of opioid deaths in Canada. The group formed after the first story about Danny
ran in the Edmonton Journal in 2015. Several mothers found Petra’s contact information and shared their own stories of loss. In 2016, Petra, along with Lorna Thomas and Leslie McBain formed Moms Stop the Harm.
Petra said the group was formed in part because the mothers didn’t see a response to the growing crisis. Although there were a few warnings from police services, they didn’t see a strategy to inform people about the dangers of fentanyl. The group quickly grew and now has more than 400 member families across the country.
“Due to the stigma related to substance use, people are hesitant to speak out,” said Petra. “The number of families willing to talk about this issue is a big shift.”
Pressing for change
The biggest improvement the Schulz couple have seen is that people are having conversations about addictions and mental health issues.
Overdose antidote naloxone is now readily available, a life-saving initiative, and access to treatment in Alberta is increasing. Additionally, the federal government passed the 911 Good Samaritan Act, which provides immunity from simple possession charges for those who call 911 in the case of an overdose.
Despite this progress, the Schulzes still feel that the response is not adequate for the level of the crisis. Moms Stop the Harm would like to see a national opioid strategy informed by people with lived experience: people who use opioids, their families and experts in the field.
“Much of what's been done up to this point has been based on morals rather than the best medical evidence,” said Petra.
Moms Stop the Harm is also advocating for the decriminalization of personal possession of drugs, which is different from legalization. Under decriminalization, it would still be illegal to sell, produce or import drugs, but people caught with a small amount for personal use would not be charged. This would allow the government to shift the focus from the criminal justice system to the health-care system.
One of the many facets of this crisis is the education around opioids for health-care staff and students. Richard completed his PhD in pharmacology in the 1980s and still recalls a lecture on opioids. He said when he was studying, opioids were regarded as very powerful, important drugs to treat severe pain. The teaching at the time was that they were addictive and should be used sparingly with great discretion. Richard said that over the years that changed, which he attributes to the influence of pharmaceutical companies.
The Schulzes also point to a lack of mental health support as another contributing factor to the current crisis, since people with mental health issues often self-medicate. Many members of Moms Stop the Harm indicate that they lost a loved one who had mental health issues. The Schulzes knew Danny had social anxiety that worsened in his 20s. Petra recalled that Danny once said after he took an opiate, he could walk into a room and be himself.
“We’re losing so many young people. It’s very hard for them to say they are having mental health issues,” said Richard. “But if the services were more readily available it would help.”
The family would also like to see more work done on prevention, rather than response. They have found that many existing campaigns are fear-based campaigns that scare children who are at low risk, but entice those who are at high-risk. They say identifying kids who are at risk and providing intervention would prevent the crisis from continuing.
It was clear to Petra and Richard that their youngest son was special early on. An old soul, Danny loved vintage typewriters and had a beaten up steel desk that he moved around with him to set his typewriter on. His parents recalled his love for reading the newspaper, enjoying a good conversation around a table and his interest in politics.
Richard glowed as he remembered Danny’s 14th birthday party, he had requested a campfire in the backyard in the middle of January. Danny loved to go camping, to be outdoors and treasured trips with his family and friends. His father believes those were some of Danny’s happiest times.
“I had a special connection with Danny,” said Richard.
They shared a common bond over old cars, which Danny loved. He had a series of old cars that Richard said the father-son duo enjoyed buying, repairing and selling.
Danny was initially interested in becoming an automotive mechanic. Instead, he decided to pursue cooking. Richard said Danny started as a dishwasher and worked his way up, eventually working at some of Edmonton’s best restaurants and graduating from the Art Institute of Vancouver.
“We always thought he had the moxie to run his own restaurant one day,” said Richard.
Petra and Richard said Danny was passionate about music and enjoyed jamming with his friends playing the guitar. Before he died, he was working on his singing voice and was writing lyrics.
“Danny was not always open about his substance use,” said Petra. “He first told us when he was in trouble.”
After that, Petra said he was able to discuss his opioid use with them. When Danny relapsed, he was hiding it.
Danny’s best friend had cystic fibrosis and received a lung transplant. After that, Petra said Danny became an advocate for organ donation and encouraged his friends and family to sign their organ donation cards. Sadly, it was not an option for Danny to donate his organs, but Petra said they are able to donate his story to help save lives.
“I think Danny would be happy with that,” said Petra.
What you can do
If you have a loved one with addictions issues, the Schulzes believe the most important thing you can do is to be compassionate and to try to get away from shaming and the idea that addiction is bad.
“It’s another disease; it’s horrible to be addicted to an opiate. If you can be open so the person with the addiction doesn’t have to lie and hide, you can take away some of the shame and reduce their danger,” said Richard.
They also recommend getting a naloxone kit, which are available at most Alberta pharmacies, and reaching out to get support from others in similar situations.
Brain Awareness Week
Every year as part of Brain Awareness Week, the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute and Neurosciences Graduate Student Organization organize a public lecture to highlight a major area or issue in neuroscience. This year, the lecture Unraveling the Opioid Crisis will explore various public health, clinical, basic science and community perspectives on opioid addiction.