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In B.C.'s drug crisis, 'the only life he couldn't save was his own'

Chris Schwede would have gone to treatment, his sisters say, but “nothing was available.” On Thursday, he died of a suspected drug overdose.

On Thursday morning, Chris Schwede died alone in his tent outside Our Place of a suspected drug overdose.

His death was something he and his sisters always knew could happen. But even so, it has left Candice Csaky and Tammy Trausch raw with grief and bitter at society’s inability to help the drug-addicted.

“It was like we all knew he had a terminal illness and the time was coming. But we didn’t know when it was coming and we didn’t know how to change that course for him,” Trausch said Friday. “But it still doesn’t make you ready when the time comes. It’s still a surprise and unbelievable.”

She held Schwede’s baseball glove and sunglasses and the blue jacket he was wearing the last time she saw him. She had salvaged the familiar items from the blue tent, now a makeshift memorial, in front of the welfare office on Pandora Avenue.

Members of the street community stopped by the tent to let the sisters know how many lives their brother had saved administering naloxone to reverse drug overdoses.

“He’d tell me: ‘Candi, I’m saving lives. I’m saving lives. These people need help and if I’m not here, I can’t help them,’ ” Csaky recalled. “He saved a life the day before he died. But I wanted him to save himself first. The only life he couldn’t save was his own.”

The 49-year-old’s death came in the wake of drug alerts from Island Health and Our Place Society about xylazine, a veterinary sedative being added to the already poisoned illicit drug supply. Our Place said it had responded to several difficult overdoses and that many were experiencing severe psychosis on the strong new drug, known as Turquoise Down.

Schwede’s sisters aren’t convinced their brother died of an overdose. They are awaiting toxicology results and the coroner’s report.

Schwede grew up in Victoria, the second of four children. Family legend has it that he was the runner-up to play the naked baby Superman in the original Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder.

“That’s how he kind of lived his life,” Csaky said. “He was invincible. He was strong.”

Crack cocaine would prove to be his kryptonite.

By all accounts, Schwede had a great childhood. The family went camping and fishing together, watched Star Wars movies together, had Thanksgivings and Christmases together, Trausch said. Schwede earned his ticket and became a journeyman electrician.

But as he got older, he seemed to lose his way.

“There were a series of events in life where things got really hard…,” Csaky said.

“…then it snowballed,” added Trausch.

Schwede, who started using cocaine at 18, became addicted to crack cocaine. He had long stretches of being healthy but his addiction grew more entrenched in the past six years.

“He wanted help and we wanted to help. Everyone felt helpless,” Trausch said. “He needed someone to get him on the right path, but nothing was available. There was no direction for us to point him to.”

Schwede would have gone to treatment, said Csaky, who had helped him with his résumé last year when he wanted to get off the streets and get back to work. “There was nothing he loved more than family, especially his daughter.”

The sisters had just talked to an outreach worker who told them there was an 111-day wait for a detox bed.

Schwede, who lost many friends to the opioid crisis, was very careful about his drug supply, they said.

“He hated opioids. He wouldn’t touch them, no matter what,” Csaky said. “He wouldn’t let people around Our Place smoke opioids in his tent or anywhere around them. He would tell them: ‘You need to stop. That stuff is dangerous. It will kill you.’ ”

Both women feel the messaging about illicit drug use is misguided. They believe that instead of telling people how to use drugs safely, they should be telling them not to use.

“The way the whole system is set up — the tents out there and allowing drug use is not helping anybody,” Trausch said, gesturing at the encampment. “It’s making it easier for people to carry on in that life. And it’s not a life. They’re like walking zombies on that street.”

Csaky drove by Schwede’s tent every day needing to know he was safe. In the last months of his life, his tent caught fire and his hands were badly burned. He was struck by a car as he cycled along the bike lanes on Douglas Street. When he was taken to the emergency room at Royal Jubilee Hospital, there wasn’t even a chair for him to sit in, Csaky said.

Although many advocate for safe supply, neither woman believe it’s the answer to the opioid crisis.

“People will cut their safe supply with things that are not safe and you still have the problems of overdose. Or they will sell the clean stuff because they will get more money for it and buy the stuff that the dealers are selling,” Csaky said.

“There’s no such thing as safe supply because Chris was on safe supply and he’s in a morgue right now,” Trausch added. “We needed to get to the root cause of why he had an addiction. Where was his pain coming from that he can’t address. Where’s the trauma?”

There have been more than 10,000 illicit drug deaths in B.C. since the province declared a public health emergency in April 2016, the B.C. Coroners Service reported this week.

At least 1,095 people are believed to have died from January to June this year, including 80 in Greater Victoria and 33 in Nanaimo.

Grant McKenzie, communications director for Our Place, believes the veterinary sedative in Turquoise Down is being added to illicit drugs to stretch out the high.

“This drug caught us by surprise by how quickly it hit people, stopped them breathing, and how devastating it was for our population,” he said.

“We’re all on high alert. The staff are being ultra vigilant, looking out for people who are nodding off, whose skin colour is turning blue. We want to make sure and check on those people and make sure they are breathing.”

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