Jamie Kohlen of Williams Lake holds a photograph of herself with her late brother, Tanner Willburn, 35, who died on Aug. 17. He had a drug overdose at his Vancouver residence on July 8 and never recovered. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

‘It’s pretty raw’: Williams Lake woman shares story of brother’s fatal overdose

Jamie Kohlen does not want her brother to be forgotten

A Williams Lake woman whose brother died almost six weeks after a drug overdose hopes to raise awareness about addictions and the need of more supports for grieving families.

“It’s pretty raw,” said Jamie Kohlen, who volunteered during an overdose awareness day event hosted by Interior Health in Williams Lake on Aug. 31. “I think the stigma around it isn’t fair. I don’t think there is enough awareness. I don’t think there is enough care for families that are going through this. I don’t want my brother’s death going out as nothing and as a forgotten person. I want to share my story.”

Her brother, Tanner Gene Willburn, 35, overdosed at his Vancouver residence the morning of July 8, 2020.

She said he was down for 25 minutes when they were trying to revive him. They brought him back twice.

Willburn was taken to St. Paul’s Hospital and then transferred to Vancouver General Hospital, where he had a world-leading specialist working on him.

“They actually inserted a brain bolt into him to check his levels of oxygen and blood flow throughout his brain because they were thinking fentanyl.”

Blood tests showed he did have fentanyl in his system but it was laced with something else that was unknown.

For two weeks he was kept heavily sedated because he was having seizures. Eventually medical staff were able to wake him up and he was completely off sedation and painkillers.

Kohlen said after giving him a three-week period to progress from his ‘vegetative state,’ from which he did not improve, she connected with her family doctor on Aug. 13 and requested her brother be transferred to palliative care at Cariboo Memorial Hospital in Williams Lake.

A few days later, on Aug. 17, he died in the hospital with his family at his side.

Kohlen said her brother experienced homelessness in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside for about five or six years.

Recently he and his girlfriend had ‘begun the building blocks’ to start a new life. They found a home and he had started achieving various certificates, such as first aid.

“But when you don’t have coping mechanisms that you haven’t dealt with you fall back on things like drug addiction.”

She said she’s had to find resources on her own and was lucky her neighbour, who is a counsellor at Interior Health, reached out and gave her a booklet.

“It angers me very much. My brother is not the first loved one to have an overdose. I hope this can help bring more support to families. Even a leaflet outlining what counselling services are available or a phone call the next day from a social worker. Something. There wasn’t anything. I am left scrambling trying to find resources and help for myself and my family.”

Kohlen said her brother overdosed at 10 a.m. and by 4 p.m. that day a doctor from Vancouver phoned their mom to let them know.

“I think it’s important for people to put a reliable emergency contact on their form because had my mom not been contacted he would have went through the month and more without us being with him.”

Normally Kohlen connected with her brother almost every second day, mostly through Facebook. They were three years apart and very close, she said.

“I want to express that he was very caring. His social worker said she hadn’t met a homeless person like Tanner. He touched a lot of people’s lives and was a very, very special person. It is a great loss for everyone.”

Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, noted in an Overdose Awareness Day statement Monday the province is committed to doing everything it can to turn the tide on this ‘terrible crisis.’

“Each and every person who died was the light of someone’s life, and their absence leaves a profound void,” Darcy said. “Since January, 909 lives have been lost to an illegal drug supply that is more toxic than it has ever been in British Columbia.”

Darcy said the unintended consequences of COVID-19 measures have been particularly hard on people who use drugs. Many are facing isolation and loneliness, disconnection from usual in-person supports, financial strain and mental-health challenges — all contributing to unprecedented levels of stress and pain.

Read more: Fatal overdoses continue to spike in B.C. as July sees 175 illicit drug deaths


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