Coroner's inquest to probe overdose death of UVic student

Sidney Starko, 18, died in January after a cardiac arrest due to a fentanyl poisoning, according to her parents. B.C. Premier David Eby says a coroner's inquest will examine the circumstances surrounding her death. ( - image credit)
Sidney Starko, 18, died in January after a cardiac arrest due to a fentanyl poisoning, according to her parents. B.C. Premier David Eby says a coroner's inquest will examine the circumstances surrounding her death. ( - image credit)

The British Columbia government is asking universities to implement more drug safety measures after a coroner's inquest was called into the overdose death of an 18-year-old University of Victoria (UVic) student, whose parents accused campus security and a 911 operator of failing to respond to help save her life.

The death of Sidney McIntyre-Starko in January has also prompted a review of policies for accessing naloxone — a drug that can reverse overdose effects — on post-secondary campuses.

B.C.'s minister of post-secondary education also said the province will be working with post-secondary institutions to roll out overdose prevention measures on campuses across B.C. this fall.

McIntyre-Starko, a first-year science student, suffered a cardiac arrest due to fentanyl poisoning in a UVic dorm room in the early evening of Jan. 23 and died in hospital five days later, according to an open letter dated May 15 from her parents, Dr. Caroline McIntyre and Kenton Starko.

Based on witness statements and 911 call recordings obtained via a freedom of information request, they claim "overwhelming failures" contributed to their daughter's death.

They claim campus security did not call 911 or administer the naloxone they were carrying to McIntyre-Starko, who had overdosed alongside two other students.

Another student impaired by fentanyl was the only one who dialled 911, according to the family's letter. Even then, the operator took 3½ minutes before asking the reason for the call, McIntyre-Starko's parents claim.

"They denied her the lifesaving care she needed until it was too late," wrote Kenton Starko and McIntyre, who is an emergency room physician. "Our daughter's death was preventable."

CBC News has contacted the parents for further comment.

In a statement to CBC on Monday, UVic said the campus security officers who attended McIntyre-Starko's overdose followed protocols and their first aid training and "made every effort ... to save Sidney's life."

"Although that day ended tragically, their efforts are commendable," said campus security director Jessica Maclean.

Campus security also helped save the life of another student who had overdosed that night, according to the statement.

Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press
Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press

B.C. Emergency Health Services said in a statement that they were working with McIntyre-Starko's family to help answer their questions in the aftermath of her death.

"The matter is now being reviewed through the Patient Care Quality Office at the request of the family," a spokesperson wrote. "We are in the process of completing that review and will provide updates to the family once it's complete."

'Horrific situation': premier

The student's death, first reported by Postmedia, dominated question period in the legislature last Thursday as the Opposition B.C. United Leader Kevin Falcon pressed the NDP government to grant the family's calls for a coroner's inquest.

Responding to Falcon, Premier David Eby said he had spoken briefly with McIntyre and confirmed Solicitor General Mike Farnworth would be ordering a coroner's inquest.

"This is an absolutely horrific situation for Sidney's family, for her friends," said Eby. "The timeline of events is profoundly disturbing."

Mike McArthur/CBC
Mike McArthur/CBC

Coroner's inquests are formal court proceedings that publicly review the circumstances of a death to address community concerns or raise awareness of preventable deaths, according to the B.C. Coroners Service website.

Jury members do not seek to find fault, but can issue recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future.

"We will work with the family to get them the answers that they deserve, and we will ensure that any necessary policy changes are in place to prevent similar deaths," said Eby.

McIntyre-Starko's parents are also calling for nasal naloxone, which is easier to administer, to be made widely available on campuses across B.C., and for the province to make training on naloxone and harm reduction mandatory in high school and post-secondaries.

They also want a review of what they call a "parallel medical system" on campuses to ensure students are not encouraged to call campus security instead of 911, and for health authorities to notify when there are overdoses in high schools and post-secondaries.

Mike McArthur/CBC
Mike McArthur/CBC

UVic said it welcomed the inquest as "an opportunity to improve how post-secondary institutions, and beyond, respond to the opioid crisis."

"The fact that we have lost a member of our campus community is tragic," said UVic president Kevin Hall.

"We are also sharing our lessons learned with other universities and campuses across BC in hopes that Sidney's death can help prevent harm to other students, not only here at UVic but elsewhere," said Maclean.

UVic students can pick up naloxone kits at the university's Harm Reduction Centre and receive training on how to use them through the student union or online via Toward the Heart, according to a statement from the university on Jan. 26.

Nav Rahi/CBC
Nav Rahi/CBC

On Thursday, Eby, Mental Health Minister Jennifer Whiteside and Post-Secondary Education Minister Lisa Beare said naloxone is readily available on all post-secondary campuses.

"We are in discussions to purchase nasal naloxone in larger quantities ... and we are working on adding CPR training as a mandatory lesson in high schools," Whiteside said in a statement to CBC News on Tuesday morning.

"If there are any steps that can be taken to prevent future deaths, we will take them."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Beare said in a statement late Tuesday that she had met with all 25 of B.C.'s public post-secondary institutions to discuss how to keep students safe amid the toxic drug crisis, and new measures will be in place by the fall semester.

"This work will include distribution and standards for training for naloxone, including nasal naloxone," she said.

"Once guidelines are established, the committee will share those guidelines more broadly across the sector," she added. "We are committed to working on all fronts to combat the toxic drug crisis and to keep post-secondary students safe on campus."

B.C. United health critic Shirley Bond said such assurances offer "little comfort" to McIntyre-Starko's parents or the families of the more than 300,000 post-secondary students in the province.

"What happened to our daughter when campus security responded to her medical emergency at the University of Victoria is unfathomable, particularly in a province with a declared public health emergency for the fentanyl crisis," wrote McIntyre-Starko's parents in their letter.

More than 14,000 people have died of overdoses since B.C. declared a public health emergency in 2016. McIntyre-Starko is among 572 people reported to have died due to toxic drugs in the first three months of 2024, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.