'There is an after' when it comes to opioid addiction

In the face of a rampant crisis, Canadian Red Cross offers a lifeline

'There is an after' when it comes to opioid addiction

This article was produced in partnership with Canadian Red Cross

Kimiko Hirakida was an instructor with the Canadian Red Cross Swimming & Water Safety Program for many years, and she was great at it. But beneath her bright smile and passion for her work, something darker drove her dedication.

“What made me really good at that role, and saw me put a lot of time in, was that I was working to escape things that were going wrong in my personal life at the time,” Hirakida says.

In 2014, Hirakida’s husband – who suffers from Crohn’s Disease – required six invasive surgeries in six months, Hirakida quickly saw there was a problem. In his desperate quest to manage the pain, her husband bounced from clinic to clinic, doctor to doctor, to get the pills he relied on. This went on for two years, causing extensive strain on Hirakida and their relationship, before the situation hit rock bottom: her husband, a police officer, was arrested for prescription fraud.

“Luckily, his department recognized this wasn’t a behaviour it was a medical issue and immediately offered to pay for rehab — it was our saving grace,” Hirakida recalls.

Grabbing a lifeline

Though rehab was a success and he fully recovered, the casualty of Hirakida’s husband’s addiction was their marriage. The couple split within a year of his return from treatment. Throughout the addiction, Hirakida lived in a state of hypervigilance — she was constantly searching coat pockets, under the stove, in cabinets and couch cushions for hidden pills — and never could regain the trust.

During this time, her work was an escape. Nobody knew what was going on at home and when she stepped into her role “it was like a switch flipped, I always put on a bright, smiley face,” Hirakida says. When Red Cross stepped back from swimming & water safety programming it felt like a death.  Then, when she learned the organization was moving into the opioid harm reduction sphere Hirakida saw a lifeline not just for others struggling with opioid dependency but for herself: it was an opportunity to leverage her lived experience and help dispel the stigma that surrounds addiction.

“Walking into the opioid harm advisory group, I found solid footing,” Hirakida, who works as an Education Manager with the Lifesaving Society BC & Yukon as well as volunteering her time on the Red Cross’ Advisory Council and as Opioid Harm Reduction Leader, says. “I can explain that this doesn’t just happen to people on the street; it happened to us — two white-collar, double-income people — and it’s not something we did. It’s something that just happened. I can’t describe it any other way.”

The opioid crisis in Canada is rampant, a critical public health concerns with devastating impacts. While it’s clearly visible on BC’s notorious Downtown Eastside, for example, where many people roll up their windows, lock their doors, and drive down East Hastings as fast as they can, Hirakida’s story highlights the fact that it really can happen to anybody — and that every human deserve the tools to get back on track.

“These are people who simply didn’t have the resources to be successful in the face of a dependency, like my husband and I did,” Hirakida says. “It hits us at all levels.”

Empower your workplace with lifesaving skills — and ensure you’re in compliance with OHSA

Nearly 1 in 13 opioid-related deaths in Ontario between 2018-2020 occurred among construction workers, and to combat that statistic the government implemented new requirements under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. As of June 2023, workplaces must have naloxone kits on hand if the employer believes there’s a risk of a worker opioid overdose.

Recognizing that the opioid crisis crosses demographics and that many, like Hirakida did, put on a brave face in the workplace, the Ontario Workplace Naloxone Program empowers Ontario workplaces with lifesaving skills and training.

“I’m proud that workplaces are looking into this because they realize it’s anybody and everybody that can be impacted,” Hirakida says. “By providing this as a blanket training to all staff, you never know who you’re reaching because you never know what somebody is going through at home. I was silent in my workplace, but this would have benefitted me and given me somewhere to reach out to.”

To help meet these new OHSA requirements, until March 8 eligible workplaces can sign up for free naloxone kits (valued at $108 per kit) and training (valued at $30 per person). Flexible and convenient, the course is delivered online and is self-directed. It’s developed by an advisory board council of subject matter experts and as with all Red Cross courses, language is key, Hirakida notes. Striving to remove stigma and layers of preconception, the terms drug addict or drug user aren’t used, and the issue is framed as a humanitarian crisis that reaches many people, and it reaches deeply.

“It affects everybody’s community, and you might not even know it,” Hirakida says. “Hold back your judgment, realize these are people the same as you, and understand it could happen to you.”

The data speaks for itself

The Red Cross’ unique approach to education is hitting the mark. According to a recent feedback survey, 82% of learners reported an increased confidence in their ability to respond to emergencies as a result of the training and 70% of learners reported an increased awareness of opioid-related harm as a result of the training. Specific comments include that the course was easy to understand and clear on what needs to happen during an emergency; that it tackled a complex topic with simplicity; they felt ready to handle an opioid-related incident as a result of the training; and many respondents mentioned that the format, specifically the addition of CPR to the curriculum, made it a comprehensive program.

Though Hirakida won’t ever get over the trauma she experienced, she can use it to show people there is an after. And that’s what Red Cross training helps create: a clear way out. When you’re in it, you don’t think anything else is possible as you live hour to hour, supporting your person any way you can — codependency is a real thing, Hirakida notes — but if you have support, you can get to the other side and “it’s like a breath of fresh air you didn’t know you needed.”

With a dedication to fostering a sense of belonging and hope through her work, Hirakida’s new driver is a deep desire to help others navigate what is, at its core, a very human experience — and give them the tools to come out the other side.

“If I can help somebody take that breath, then I’ve done everything I can.”

For more information on the Ontario Workplace Naloxone Program and how to take advantage of the limited-time free offer, sign up now.