By Travis Lupick, for Vice
Every Tuesday afternoon at 4:45 p.m., Melody Cooper’s siblings and mother meet for bingo at Our Lady of Sorrows, a Catholic school in East Vancouver. Cooper, 44, smiled and spoke warmly of the tradition. But she said her heroin addiction—something she’d struggled with for 17 years—has kept her far too busy to join them.
“They’ve always gone together, but I haven’t,” Cooper recounted from a coffee shop in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. “Stress has always been a struggle. Trying to get my next fix, wondering where I’m going to get it from. Lots of worries. Very little sleep.”
When fentanyl emerged as a problem in British Columbia in 2013, the dangerous synthetic opioid gradually replaced heroin on the streets of the Downtown Eastside, widely known as ground zero for the opioid crisis in Canada. Across the province, overdose deaths soared: In 2013, there were 333 fatal overdoses, 15 percent involving fentanyl. In 2018, there were 1,514, and the number involving fentanyl had risen to 87 percent.
Cooper said she grew increasingly convinced she would end up among them. “I had close friends dying left and right, all around me,” she recalled. “It scared the shit out of me.”
Cooper concedes she still injects drugs every day, but what’s different is where she gets those drugs. For more than a decade, the first person Cooper interacted with most mornings was a dealer. Now it’s a nurse.
In September 2016, Cooper was nicknamed “Patient Zero” in an experimental program initiated by PHS Community Services Society (PHS), a nonprofit that operates the supportive-housing building where she lives. Twice a day, Cooper receives doses of hydromorphone, a prescription painkiller that’s better known by one of its brand names, Dilaudid. Hydromorphone is a powerful opioid that’s similar enough to heroin that it eliminates the feelings of withdrawal that Cooper once feared. More than that, access to a guaranteed supply safe from contamination has brought stability to Cooper’s life, enough to reconnect with family and take a part-time job—the first in her life. “And you know you’re not going to die from it,” she said.