Our nation reached a grim milestone this year, with 100,000 Americans dying from drug overdoses for the first time in a one-year period. In this deeply moving essay about the loss of her older brother to the opioid epidemic, physician and SHP master's student Kaylynn Purdy writes in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that her beloved older brother turned to opioids to help calm the effects of schizophrenia.
Purdy said she wanted to write about Blake’s death to put a face to the opioid epidemic.
“As physicians, it’s easy to compartmentalize and to start to see people with severe mental health conditions as just their disease and fail to see the common humanity that connects all of us,” Purdy said. “It was my goal by telling the story of Blake’s life through my own eyes would remind people that each number in the opioid death statistic is a person — a person who had a family and people who loved them. It’s easy to brush off 100,000 deaths from opiate overdoses in America if all you see is a number; it’s not so easy if you know the story behind each death.”
Too many victims of the opioid epidemic are blamed for their addiction, though many of them were initially prescribed painkillers for injuries or psychiatric illnesses.
“Blake faced stigma for so many reasons: his dark hair and skin, his tattoos, his mental illness, his addictions,” Purdy wrote in her essay. “People automatically labelled Blake in both life and in death, even though he had the right to be seen first as a person, a son, a brother and a friend. He slipped through every safety net that tried to catch him. He died young, tragically and from an avoidable cause, even though our family used every resource we could find.”
The opioid crisis has also impacted our neighbors to the north, with Canada having experienced a spike in drug overdoses during the pandemic as well.
Blake also became homeless when he felt more comfortable living outside.
“He told me he liked to sleep outside, under the stars at the beach in Stanley Park, because that was where his mind was the clearest,” she wrote.
Blake died on Feb. 13, 2021, at the age of 34, from an overdose due to fentanyl-contaminated methamphetamines. The synthetic opioid typically used for advanced cancer pain has is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the illicit market for fentanyl has exacerbated the overdose epidemic.
“I was preparing a case presentation for rounds at the time he died,” Purdy wrote. “He died alone in a low-income housing hotel on Granville Street in downtown Vancouver, in a room with a mattress on the floor, a sink, and a photo of our family perched on the radiator.”
Purdy is taking a break from her residency in adult neurology at the University of Alberta to study at Stanford. Having grown up in a small town in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, she is looking at health equity through the lens of improving access to health care for people in rural and remote regions.
“I began to see in medical school — especially during my residency — that many of the complexities that affected my patients were related to the social determinants of health and that only being a clinician wouldn’t allow me to tackle this problem,” Purdy said. “It’s why I’m combining a health policy degree here at Stanford alongside my neurology training.”
Purdy chose neurology in part because Blake’s diagnosis. “Schizophrenia is not a well-understood disease, and as a medical student there was a part of me that hoped that by being in the field of neurology, I might be able to help him more.”
Just like thousands of other families, Purdy could not save her brother.
“His memory is the driving force behind everything that I do,” she said. “It is my goal to create a future through both clinical medicine and health policy changes that will prevent deaths like Blake’s and provide better access to health services to the most disadvantaged and underserved populations in our society. For Blake — and everybody like him.”