Pubdate: Fri, 06 Jul 2012
Source: London Free Press (CN ON)
Copyright: 2012 The London Free Press
Author: Randy Richmond
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


NEEDLE EXCHANGE: Former addict Keri Death-Wheatley says London's 
needle exchange program - in the spotlight this week after a Free 
Press story about the rise of heroin, hydromorphone and crystal meth 
in the city - helped her turn her life around

The points of the needles were getting so dull, Keri Death-Wheatley 
had trouble puncturing her skin.

"They would bounce right off my skin. I was really banging myself up. 
There were times I would just push it right in to make it go in there."

A fellow addict saw how often she reused her needles and told her 
there was a place she could get clean new needles for free.

Death-Wheatley paid others to go down to London's Counterpoint needle 
exchange to get the free supplies.

"It was my way of saying I'm not in trouble. Because I'm not walking 
in there, I'm not that bad. I'm just dabbling. I would have 10 
needles and use them over and over again and it didn't seem like much."

The first box of free needles proved how much she was fooling herself.

"I looked on my side table and I saw this pile of needles I used that 
was so huge. There were probably 40 or 50 needles there and that was 
just a few hours, less than a day. I went, 'Oh my God, I can't kid 
myself that it is OK.' It was eye-opening."

She made a promise to stop using drugs. It took months of counselling 
and an inadvertent intervention by her young children, but she made it.

The needle exchange Death-Wheatley avoided at London's Regional 
HIV/AIDS Connection is now where she works, as a hepatitis C 
counsellor and peer support worker.

"Free needles; it ended up saving my life. When people say harm 
reduction doesn't work, I'm living and breathing proof that it does," 
Death-Wheatley says.

London's drug culture, and the needle exchange at the centre of it, 
has come under the spotlight after The Free Press published a story 
this week about the rise of heroin, hydromorphone and crystal meth in 
London because Oxycontins, the opiate of choice, have been replaced 
by OxyNEO, a tablet far more difficult to abuse.

Death-Wheatley joined the lively chat on the comment 
board about the story, which included the usual attacks on addicts 
for their addiction, and programs set up to treat them.

Death-Wheatley, 41, jokes about her maiden name being prophetic, 
because she once used so many drugs she can't believe she escaped the 
grave. Her addictions, to heroin and Oxys at different points, give 
her a perspective few others have.

It's a perspective she's willing to share to help others. Abused as a 
child by two uncles, she was drinking heavily by the end of 
elementary school, and promiscuous and pregnant at 17.

She quit high school, and made the almost inevitable move from 
alcohol to harder drugs that led to losing custody of her first child.

For three years in the 1990s, she and her second husband followed the 
Grateful Dead, and turned to heroin.

Nothing gives you the same high and nothing takes a greater hold on 
your life than heroin, she says.

"Heroin is much more frantic. You beg for it. London never had a 
large-scale heroin problem before.

"I wish heroin weren't here. It makes me very worried," Death-Wheatley says.

It took a two-day blackout in the mid 1990s to convince her and her 
husband to quit. "It was scaring us. We were both near dead."

They managed to get clean enough for Death-Wheatley to get pregnant 
again in 1996, and she ended up having two more children. But the 
drugs came back.

"Cocaine. I would do that any way I could. Smoke, snort, inject. Coke 
to get up. Oxys to come down. Drinking double time. Anywhere I could 
find a blue line under my skin I would stick a needle in it. It was 
fanatical. Preparation, inject. Preparation, inject."

Her marriage broke up. She lost custody of her two children.

But on the surface, Death-Wheatley didn't seem like a hardcore needle 
user. She held onto a job. She moved to London to be near all three 
children. When her children visited, she hid the addiction.

"Drugs made everything better. Whether I was down or I was up, it 
made it better. I was a dirty user. I shared needles. It was what can 
I get to get me high now and if I didn't have it, whatever you were 
going to offer me it was great."

The revelation that she was using so many needles started her on the 
road to getting clean, getting counselling, going to meetings, 
leaving meetings, getting high, going back to meetings.

"I made that promise every day: I am going to get my s--- together."

It was her children who finally made her keep that promise. The two 
youngest were visiting her apartment. Death-Wheatley has the date 
tattooed in her mind. Jan. 25, 2008. They were watching Charlotte's 
Web and the song Ordinary Miracle came on. The sunlight was shining 
on her children's blond hair.

"They are both looking at me with these beautiful, open smiles. They 
said, 'That was a good movie mommy.' I just looked at them and in 
that moment I realized what I was doing to them, what I was denying them."

Each anniversary of getting clean, she plays the song. But it still 
took time for her to figure out her life, and there were relapses and 
a stay at a shelter along the way.

Once she was clean, she was accepted at triOS College, a private 
centre based in Toronto with a campus in London, and earned a 47-week 
diploma to become an addiction worker.

Death-Wheatley gives a hearty laugh when she talks about her change 
in attitude about education.

"In high school I never went to class and got 50s. I graduated from 
triOS with a 95 average and excellence in attendance."

When it came time for a volunteer placement, Death-Wheatley naturally 
chose the needle exchange at the HIV Connection. She turned that 
volunteer placement into a job as a hepatitis C peer support worker last year.

There are a lot of ways to battle addiction, but a key to tackling 
the city's drug problem is to treat addicts as people, Death-Wheatley says.

- --- --- ---

London's Counterpoint needle and syringe program

What: free harm reduction materials and information to reduce risk of 
HIV and other infections in injection drug users. Also information 
and material to support safe sex.

Supplies include new needles and syringes, ties, cooking spoons, 
condoms, vitamin C, alcohol swabs Refers users, when ready, to other 
social and health care agencies Collects used needles, arranges 
pickups of used needles and oversees city's 13 needle disposal sites 
Opened in 1992 Where: Regional HIV/AIDS Connection, 186 King St.

Active clients

2006: 1,030

2010: 3,079

Number of individual visits

(for needle exchange and other services)

2006: 12,510 (9,173 men, 3,337 women)

2010: 16,261 (12,579 men, 3,682 women)

Needles dispensed/safely disposed (return rate)

2006: 516,756/325,590 (63%)

2010: 1,315,418/957,627 (72%)

Referrals to treatment

2006: 23

2010: 67

Cost of needle exchange program:

$250,000 a year

Estimated cost of lifetime treatment of HIV for one person:

$250,000 to $750,000

Rate of HIV infection in needle users

London: 3%

National average: 14%

Source: 2010 federally funded study
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom