Interactive map of overdose deaths brings opioid crisis closer to home
When 17-year-old Austin Padaric died of a morphine overdose in 2013, his mother wanted to put him on the map.
This map, to be specific: Celebrating Lost Loved Ones, an interactive obituary of sorts for victims of the opioid epidemic in the U.S. and Canada.
“We’re trying to get as many people as possible to upload their loved one,” said Christine Padaric, Austin’s mother, who now educates young people about harm reduction in Waterloo, Ont.
Those who have lost a friend or family member can enter photos and memories to the database, Padaric said. She discovered the map, created by a Colorado man who lost his brother to opioid addiction nine years ago, from a colleague last year.
She’s been promoting it on her Facebook group, Overdose Canada, ever since.
There are over 570 entries so far.
“It puts a face to a name, so you can see that these are just regular people. You can see my son on there — he’s just a kid,” Padaric said.
“That’s what I’m trying to get across. This can happen to anyone.”
Bringing the crisis to your doorstep
Jeremiah Lindemann, the software developer who created the map, knows that all too well.
At 23, his brother Jameson, or J.T., had a warm smile and a talent for playing drums.
When J.T. died nine years ago, his autopsy showed high levels of oxycodone and methadone, Lindemann said.
Lindemann, who lives in Denver, Co., admits at first he didn’t want to talk about J.T.’s struggle with addiction. But three years ago, he began hearing about overdose deaths everywhere.
“It’s getting worse every year,” he said. “So, I thought, maybe we can visualize this a bit better than just looking at some numbers.”
Lindemann thinks the map, which is hosted by Esri — the data visualization company Lindemann works for — personalizes the crisis, bringing a North America-wide problem to the doorstep of whoever sees it.
“People are inclined to pay attention if it’s closer to where they live,” he said.
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He worked with Padaric to promote the map in Canada. Both think it has a noble purpose: banishing the shame associated with addiction and humanizing people who use drugs.
Padaric admits it also helps to assuage her own grief over Austin’s death.
“It’s a way of maintaining that memory. I don’t want him forgotten.”
National overdose data collection getting overhaul
No one knows precisely how many people die per year in Canada from opioid overdoses. Last year, there were 922 opioid overdose deaths in B.C. alone, and more than 340 from just fentanyl in Alberta, but no countrywide database exists that consistently tracks such deaths.
“One of the biggest information gaps is the standardization of overdose death statistics across Canada,” said Paul Sajan, who manages prescription drug abuse data at the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI).
He said that’s because the way overdose deaths are investigated by police and coroners differs from province to province.
“It’s virtually impossible to say, across the country, what ‘opioid-related death’ actually means,” Sajan said.
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Chief coroners and public health officials met in early March to discuss the problem and plan to release a standardized definition for opioid-related fatalities within a month that would apply across Canada, Sajan said.
At a summit on opioids in Ottawa last November, CIHI committed to publicly reporting opioid-related morbidity data by late 2018.
In the meantime, families of the deceased and researchers have been filling in the gaps themselves.
Neil Seeman, who works with health data as an adjunct lecturer at the University of Toronto, polled 743 people across Canada through an anonymous online survey and found that 15 per cent of those who responded said they knew somebody who died from opiate overdose in the past year.
‘This [map] makes it clear that this is an epidemic that … affects a broad cross-section of society.’ – Neil Seeman, adjunct lecturer, University of Toronto
Gathering and displaying overdose data online has the power to change public opinion by spurring the sharing of stories and opening a dialogue, he said.
“Ultimately, to lift stigma is to discuss it,” he said.
The opioid deaths map reveals that substance use doesn’t discriminate when it comes to age, location or economic class, he said.
“Addiction is often misunderstood as afflicting those who bring it upon themselves,” he said. “But this [map] makes it clear that this is an epidemic that … affects a broad cross-section of society.”
Marking the map an act of catharsis for Winnipeg mom
Although researchers see the map as a practical way of collecting overdose data, for relatives of the dead, it’s an outlet for their sorrow.
Tracy Sanderson still grieves the death of her daughter, Alex.
It’s only recently that she’s told friends and family exactly how Alex, a straight-A university student and volunteer at a women’s shelter in Winnipeg, died in 2013.
“I told nobody,” said Sanderson. “I was afraid of what people would think.”
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The night before she died, Alex had gotten into a car accident on her way to pick up fentanyl, a fact Sanderson later learned from text messages on Alex’s cellphone.
Sanderson, relieved her 19-year-old daughter made it home in one piece, thought she’d dodged a tragedy.
But the next day, Sanderson found Alex in her room, dead from an accidental overdose.
“I had no idea she was using at all,” she said.
Publicly, Sanderson blamed Alex’s death on the car accident. But seeing the overdose death toll mount in her native Manitoba inspired her to tell the truth.
“I thought, I can’t do this anymore,” she recalled. “There’s been all these deaths. Talking about it, it’s been like a toxin coming out of my body.”
Sanderson, like Padaric, found solace in using the map to tell her child’s story. She marked Alex’s name on it six months before she told anyone Alex had died from fentanyl overdose.
“People need to understand that it is an epidemic,” she said. “And it could happen to anybody.”
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