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B.C. vows better access to help after UVic student’s drug death

B.C. considers switch to nasal-spray naloxone instead of injection in rescue kits and expanded CPR training
Last January, Sidney McIntyre-Starko collapsed from fentanyl poisoning in a University of Victoria dorm room and died days later. VIA FAMILY

The B.C. government is promising change in response to the failed medical response that led to the death of a University of Victoria student. The student was poisoned by fentanyl in a busy dorm but didn’t receive proper treatment despite other students phoning for help right away.

The province is vowing to take action after the Vancouver Sun published a story about the preventable death of Sidney McIntyre-Starko, 18, in January.

Critics say the proposed changes must be implemented quickly and be widespread enough to protect all British Columbians during the toxic drug crisis.

“We’re going to really take lessons from what we’ve learned out of the situation with Sidney’s death to improve on all of our systems,” Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s mental health and addictions minister, said.

Sidney’s parents have a list of demands to prevent another needless death from happening again, which Whiteside said Monday her government is starting to address.

The list includes making the overdose-reversing medication naloxone available in an easy-to-use nasal spray format, as is the case in Ontario, Quebec, and other parts of the country. Right now in B.C., residents who pick up free naloxone from pharmacies can only get the type that requires injection with a needle, a much harder format for bystanders to use.

Whiteside said B.C. would bring in “tens of thousands” of nasal kits in the coming weeks and promised more in the future, although she couldn’t say exactly when. Until government speaks with health officials, it is unclear at this point where that first set of nasal doses will be sent, or what groups will be prioritized to get early access.

“There’s no question that we are going to learn from best practices in other jurisdictions around how we can improve making this life-saving tool more available,” Whiteside said.

Sidney’s parents also want CPR training to be mandatory in high school curriculum, as it is in four other provinces, including Alberta, so that young people are taught how to do rescue breathing and chest compressions until help arrives.

Whiteside said the province has begun talks to incorporate CPR into curriculum in B.C., and initially had hoped that could possibly be in place for this September. But a government spokesperson later said September 2025 was more realistic, given the discussions that will be required with unions, school boards and other groups.

Sidney’s parents would like the province to act with more urgency.

“How can the government of B.C. deprive another year of graduating students from being guaranteed the right to learn basic life saving skills? This is not just about drug overdoses, this is about knowing what to do when a relative collapses after a heart attack or a friend collapses on the soccer pitch from an arrhythmia,” said Sidney’s mother, an emergency physician.

Added her father Ken Starko: “Let’s not forget the leading cause of death of kids in high school is an opioid overdose. There is an urgency to this.”

BC United mental health, addictions, recovery and education critic Eleanore Sturko said increasing accessibility of nasal naloxone is important, but the government needs to buy more and faster.

“Tens of thousands isn’t going to cut it,” said Sturko, a former RCMP officer. “(Nasal) is such a superior delivery model for people who have no training.”

Sturko met a manufacturer of nasal naloxone on Friday, and said she was told a large supply was available for B.C.

Sidney’s parents also want to see major changes on post-secondary campuses when it comes to naloxone accessibility and medical response to emergencies. Whiteside said post-secondary Minister Lisa Beare will meet with university and college presidents on Tuesday to begin those talks.

In January, Sidney and a friend collapsed after being poisoned by fentanyl in a UVic residence. Students called campus security, whom they were instructed to contact in an emergency, right away, as well as 911. Two security officers, trained in CPR and carrying naloxone, responded, and the 911 call-taker was on the line, and yet Sidney did not receive naloxone for 13 minutes or chest compressions until after 15 minutes.

By then her brain had been starved of oxygen, and she died later in hospital. Premier David Eby said the timeline of events of Sidney’s “horrific” death was “profoundly disturbing.”

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