Charlene Baron (centre) works as a peer volunteer in Rock Bay Landing’s overdose prevention unit. It’s part of her job to watch people using injections in case they have an overdose. (Nicole Crescenzi/News Staff)

Special Report: Living with addiction while saving others during the opioid crisis

Charlene Baron draws on her experiences in her work with other local addicts

This is the first in a series of feature stories by Black Press journalists on the effects of the opioid crisis in Greater Victoria. Today (May 8) you can find a wealth of information at United Way Greater Victoria’s Overdose Prevention Expo, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at The Bay Centre downtown.

It’s a Wednesday morning, which means it’s time for Charlene Baron to do her rounds and check on people at Rock Bay Landing’s overdose prevention unit (OPU).

The room has four stainless steel booths backed with mirrors in a small room with natural light.

Three days a week Baron acts as a peer support worker and can be seen shaking people who appear to be asleep to make sure they aren’t dying.

“I went in one day and one guy asked ‘are you hounding me?’ I said I’m not hounding on you, I’m checking on you,” Baron said, her voice raspy from decades of experience living in Victoria’s opioid realm. “Another guy would say ‘quit waking me up’ and I’d say ‘I have to.’ If they start falling asleep, just because they don’t have blue lips it don’t mean a darn thing.”

ALSO READ: Victoria woman shares her painful experience with opioid addiction

Since she began working at the OPU she’s saved dozens of lives by injecting people who are overdosing with the opioid blocker naloxone, also known as Narcan. She’s also known many people who died outside of the site from overdoses, including her own son who died in January 2018.

“I talked to him two weeks before he passed,” Baron said. “I told him I didn’t want to lose him to drugs and I started crying and he was going ‘mom!’ and trying to reassure me.”

Her son, Christopher, had battled depression and mental illness for most of his life, and eventually turned to illicit drugs for relief.

Baron’s 12-year old grandson found his father dead in their home, sitting in a recliner.

“He was sitting here, and the Narcan kit I gave him was here,” Baron said, pointing to an imaginary arm rest. “After the call, I left here and I was supposed to meet my daughter at her house … I don’t know where I went, I just walked.”

Baron said she and her son had a strained relationship at times, but after he died she realized the wallpaper on his cellphone was her picture, and most of his passwords contained her name.

ALSO READ: Youngest opioid overdose victim in B.C. last year was 10 years old

“In a way, I was there with him in the end,” she said, her voice cracking.

Baron herself has lived with an opioid addiction for nearly 2o years.

It all began with a botched surgery on her foot that left her in excruciating pain. The surgeon prescribed her Dilaudid, a strong and highly addictive painkiller derived from morphine. Soon, Baron developed a tolerance and needed more. She was also prescribed injectable Demerol, another opioid.

“It got to a point that I asked him to start taking me down, even though I cried and it hurt, and he looked at me and said ‘I can’t do that.’”

Soon, Baron turned to heroin, which was more accessible than prescriptions. She tried to wean herself off drugs altogether, and even managed to get off Demerol, but found the blinding pain intolerable.

Charlene Baron has lived with an opioid addiction for 20 years. For 15 of those years, she’s solely been on methadone, a provincially-approved opioid substitute. Living on methadone makes Baron feel like she has more control over her addiction. (Nicole Crescenzi/ News Staff)

A friend told her another option would be to go on methadone, a provincially approved opioid alternative that can be accessed at addiction therapy clinics.

“So I went on it, and it worked. That’s why I guess I’m scared to get off it,” Baron said.

She’s been on methadone for more than 15 years but feels like she’s in control of her addiction, not the other way around.

“I’d never do drugs again, never in my life,” she said. “Drugs in my days were drugs … you didn’t hear of people dying from fentanyl on the street, you never heard of something like that.”

Now, working at the OPU gives Baron a sense of purpose with her continued effort to help young people as they struggle with their addictions, and drill into their heads not to use alone.

ALSO READ: Number of homeless deaths more than doubled in B.C. as opioid crisis set in

According to data from the BC Coroners Service, an average of four people die of a drug overdose in B.C. per day last year. Of these deaths, approximately 83 per cent were men, 76 per cent were between the ages of 30 and 59, and 60 per cent were in private residences – all matching Baron’s son, who was 37 and in his home when he died.

“I’m hoping what I do makes a difference,” Baron said. “The world is so small when it comes to losing people, it stays in our hearts, right? That’s why we feel better. I feel good about myself if I save somebody in a day.”

Baron hopes to get off methadone next year, noting she wants to see her grandchildren grow up, and further help the people at Rock Bay Landing who have become family to her.

“Plus, I’d like to make it to Hawaii again,” she said with a smile. “I haven’t been there in 20 years.”

For more resources in Greater Victoria, find Black Press Media’s Overdose Prevention Guide online or pick up a hard copy at our Victoria office, 3rd floor, 818 Broughton St.

nicole.crescenzi@vicnews.com


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