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'I could see that he was struggling,' Port Moody mom shares story of how her son died from toxic drugs

Diana Dilworth speaks out about B.C.'s opioid crisis and calls for more resources to create on-demand support for people with mental health and addiction to curb the grim death toll; in 2020 toxic drugs killed 28 people in Coquitlam
Diana Dilworth and her son Tyler
Diana Dilworth, a Port Moody councillor, says she is still in shock over losing her son Tyler, shown here after a hike up Eagle Mountain and with Dilworth on a trip to Costa Rica. He died of a cocaine overdose in 2017, but the drug was cut with deadly carfentanil, the coroner later confirmed.

One Port Moody mom is shaking her head in despair over Tri-City overdose numbers that show the province’s second health crisis hasn’t abated since an emergency declaration was made five years ago.

Diana Dilworth’s son, Tyler, died in 2017 from cocaine poisoned with deadly carfentanil at a time when B.C.’s tainted drug supply was just garnering attention.

Just 31 years old, he was one of 17 people who died in the region from a batch of toxic drugs in a single week in mid-August that year, Dilworth said.

She was informed of his sudden death by Port Moody police, who delivered the news to her at her Vancouver office.

Shocked, but not surprised, Dilworth took the news that was dropped on her with an equal amount of pain and resignation.

PORT MOODY POLICE GAVE HER THE DIFFICULT NEWS

“I took one look at them and said ‘it’s Tyler’ and they said ‘yes Diana it is’ and they said they were so sorry,” she told the Tri-City News.

Friends, family and members of the community rallied to support Dilworth, who is a Port Moody councillor, and 300 people turned out for Tyler’s funeral, held in the city’s council chambers.

Though not silent about what happened to her son, this is the first time Dilworth has agreed to speak on the record to the Tri-City News because of her desire to put a face to Coquitlam’s growing opioid death toll.

Last year 28 people died in Coquitlam due to illicit drug toxicity, up from 11 in 2019. Port Moody and Port Coquitlam are not included in the BC Coroner report as their numbers are small enough to be listed under a general grouping of smaller township.

But for Dilworth, the number represents more than a statistic, it represents a giant hole in the fabric of the community.

“I don’t want to have this conversation three and a half years from now talking about the opioid crisis,” she said. 

“We have to recognize the trauma is not just on the family and friends of the person who has died, it’s the paramedics, it’s the hospital, it’s the health care system — they are struggling with two huge battles.”

Losing Tyler has created a hole in her own life, which Dilworth has filled up with council and community work, and helping her daughter prepare for her wedding. She also had made teddy bears out of Tyler’s shirts to give to family and co-workers and has only recently transferred his ashes into a wooden box.

She prefers to remember the good times, recalling Tyler as a funny guy, who could also be compassionate and buy food for homeless people from his tips. A hiker and a swimmer, Tyler and Dilworth once went on a three-week hiking trip to Costa Rica.

But there was a dark side too, some of which Dilworth didn’t realize until he had died and she read his journals, which described his anxiety and depression as well as his worry that his cocaine habit was worsening his mental state.

Dilworth said Tyler would talk to her about his addiction to cocaine, go months without using, and the two even agreed and made arrangements for him to go into long-term rehabilitation.

But at the last minute, he balked.

“As his mom, one of the things I often thought about is if he had gone to rehab, would he still be here today?” said Dilworth.

FEAR ABOUT OPENING UP ABOUT MENTAL ILLNESS

While his addiction was not a secret, Dilworth believes he had more fear about opening up about mental illness.

“I could see that he was struggling, I could see he had depression,” she said. “There is so much stigma for a young man to reach out and say, ‘I need help.’”

Today, after second-guessing her own actions and those of B.C.’s top health officials, Dilworth can’t believe how many people continue to die of an opioid overdose, most from drugs containing fentanyl or its analogues.

Like 80% of those cited in the BC Coroner’s report, Tyler died alone. The assumption was that he died of an accidental cocaine overdose and it took 18 months to get confirmation that he died of a fatal level of carfentanil in his system.

Dilworth, who has been a city councillor for 20 years, hopes the terrible overdose statistics will shock people and government officials into making resources available for on-demand mental health resources and addiction recovery services.

There appeared to be some progress as the number of opioid deaths in Coquitlam dropped between 2018 and 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have worsened the situation with BC having the worst ever number of opioid deaths in 2020 at 1,716. That’s more deaths than those resulting from car accidents, suicide and homicides combined.

For Dilworth, what’s needed is both a commitment and money. But for now, she says, “I’m not seeing any big push.” 

“What’s needed is political will and a lot of money and resources — We have to do something.”

Like other parents whose children have died during B.C.’s overdose crisis, Dilworth now belongs to a club she never wanted to join. And while she is frustrated with what appears to be a lack of progress given the huge death toll in 2020, she is a mother first, with a mother’s joys and sorrows.

STILL CAN'T BELIEVE 'THAT THIS ALL HAPPENED'

A few days after her interview with the Tri-City News, Dilworth summed up her feelings in a few words of those early days and how she lives with Tyler’s death even now.

“After the police had confirmed that Tyler has died, I immediately went into shock, walked out of the room and back to get belongings from my desk. My coworkers all asked what was wrong, and I very calmly said “my son died.” There are still days that I am in shock and can’t believe that this all happened.”

“Being a parent who has lost a child, one of the most heart-wrenching from new friends or making small chat with people, is getting asked the question ‘how many children do you have?’ I have to take a big breath and say ‘I have two, one lives in the States and one is in heaven.’ And while it has taken me over three years to say that without welling up in tears, it is often the person I am speaking to who often doesn’t know how to respond. A simple ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ and we can move on to other topics.”