New clinic aims to reduce stigma around opioid addiction

With fentanyl and other opioid abuse becoming more of an issue in the Ottawa area, one treatment centre is taking a new, more personal approach to helping people with prescription drug problems.

As CBC News has reported this week, fentanyl addiction has been the subject of warnings from law enforcement, addiction experts and concerned family members for more than a year.

The mother of a young man with a fentanyl addiction said she's "terrified for his future", while a drug dealer said he won’t sell fentanyl to anyone but experienced users because it’s too easy to overdose.

Fentanyl is to blame for 253 deaths in Ontario from 2009 to 2011, second only to fellow prescription opioid oxycodone.

Ainsley, who doesn’t want her last name used, is one of those people in Ottawa addicted to prescription drugs.

The 31-year-old said she spent the last few years finishing university as a full-time student while becoming addicted to percocet, then oxycodone, then fentanyl.

"I started them for recreational reasons but at this point, if I don’t take it, I am in pain like you would not believe -- my lower back, my legs, I feel depressed,” she said.

Ainsley is currently getting treatment at a new clinic in Ottawa’s Vanier community called Recovery Ottawa after a series of failed programs.

"This is my second day on methadone and so far it’s fantastic,” Ainsley said.

“I haven't even thought about drugs and I can't tell you how amazing that is.”

Dr. Mark Ujjainwalla opened up Recovery Ottawa this month and said this centre is a different breed than other low-profile methadone clinics.

"What I thought we should do is create a centre that our patients could be proud to come to, a centre that's available, modern, almost luxurious,” he said.

Dr. Ujjainwalla said doctors and staff at his clinic are trying to reduce the stigma around opioid addiction.

Patients can be immediately prescribed methadone to help with opioid withdrawal symptoms, a fingerprint scanner used to make sure everyone gets their correct dose.

Staff said they make an effort to learn the names of patients, not just their OHIP numbers.

"I don't want to get looked at like a junkie or a bum, do you know what I mean?” said Ainsley.

“That's not who I am and here I don’t get looked like that, ever."

Dr. Ujjainwalla said the clinic also helps patients with other services such as housing, transportation, legal issues and nutrition.

They also serve people with HIV and hepatitis.

"If you don’t start with housing, shelter, clothing, food, the rest of it won't make any sense - and they won't succeed,” he said.

Dr. Ujjainwalla said the clinic can’t do everything – those wanting residential treatment programs from local hospitals face a long wait list.

Private treatment can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

"I can tell you if I opened a 200-bed facility, I'd have it filled in a week," he said.

The provincial government said it has no plans to build such a treatment facility in Ottawa, meaning patients such as Ainsley will have to keep relying on regular visits to clinics such as Recovery Ottawa.

"I don’t want to be like this, I want to be successful,” she said.

“I want to live up to my potential that I know I can live up to.”

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