Wigan health bosses speak out after 'utterly tragic' deaths of three young men after taking cocaine

Concerned health bosses are urging people to think twice before taking drugs after the deaths of several young men in Wigan.
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Staff on the intensive care unit at Wigan Infirmary have been alarmed by an increase in the number of admissions of younger people who have taken illicit substances.

Three men in their 20s and 30s have died in a short period of time after taking cocaine, despite being previously healthy.

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Three men have died after taking cocaineThree men have died after taking cocaine
Three men have died after taking cocaine
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Dr Alison Quinn, consultant in anaesthesia and intensive care medicine, said: “It has been particularly evident in the last month or so when we have had a run of cases where the deaths have been directly attributable to drug use. It’s not something we have seen a lot of on intensive care in the last few years with the pandemic, but I was quite concerned it was becoming more frequent.

"We have seen a lot of drug use in patients who are struggling with mental health and that is, I think, what comes first, the chicken or the egg?

"In the past couple of weeks we have had three very young men who sadly died within a very short window of time. Basically the sole reason that they died was down to drug use.”

It is thought two of the men had used cocaine previously, while the other took it as a “one off”, but they all suffered cardiac arrests which were not survivable. Some had also drank alcohol.

Wigan Infirmary's intensive care unit has seen more patients admitted due to drug useWigan Infirmary's intensive care unit has seen more patients admitted due to drug use
Wigan Infirmary's intensive care unit has seen more patients admitted due to drug use
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The men were not known to each other and it is not thought to be a “bad batch” of cocaine in circulation, but may be that they took larger amounts of the drug than their bodies could handle.

Their deaths caused “absolute devastation” to their loved ones and health bosses want to prevent other families suffering the same heartbreak by urging people not to take illicit substances.

Dr Quinn said: “I want people to be drug aware and to think twice and think of the consequences it has. We all have a habit of thinking that we are indestructible and sadly for these young men it was not the case.”

She said she finds it “particularly difficult” when a young person is fighting for their life and sadly dies on the ICU.

Prof Sanjay Arya, medical director at Wrightington, Wigan And Leigh Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation TrustProf Sanjay Arya, medical director at Wrightington, Wigan And Leigh Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
Prof Sanjay Arya, medical director at Wrightington, Wigan And Leigh Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
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"Often, with the majority of the patients we see, there has been a cause that wasn’t preventable and nothing would have changed the outcome,” she said.

"The issue with these young gentlemen is that it was so preventable and so mindless. When you think of the lives these people had ahead of them, the hopes and dreams that these families had for them, it’s utterly tragic.”

The hospital works with partners across Wigan and Greater Manchester when there is a series of deaths like this through the drug information system, which can provide an early warning to look out for particular issues and hopefully prevent further serious incidents.

But the best thing people can do to avoid losing their life to drugs is to seek support.

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Lisa Ball, from Wigan Council’s public health team, said: “Quite often people who use cocaine don’t come forward to access services or support when they need it and that was certainly the case here.

"Historically there is a lot of stigma around accessing support for drugs and alcohol.”

Charity With You runs services for people with drug and alcohol issues across Wigan, which can be accessed through its website and at venues across the borough.

More people have been accessing support in Wigan recently, rising from 100 to 150 referrals each month two or three years ago to 366 in July alone.

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This could be for any number of reasons, including the impact of the pandemic and coping with the cost-of-living crisis, but health professionals are pleased to see more people getting the help they need.

Ms Ball said: “People can seek support at any point that they feel they need it. Sometimes there is a misconception around when people need to access drug and alcohol support, but if people feel they are struggling, there is support available through With You, not only for individuals themselves but also for their family members.”

Her advice for reducing the harm that can be caused by using drugs and alcohol includes:

  • "Start low and go slow” (a little amount at first)
  • Don’t use too often to avoid dependence
  • Avoid drinking alcohol/taking substances if you are feeling low or anxious – your mood will be exaggerated
  • Only take it with trusted friends and look after each other
  • Only use in a safe environment
  • Don’t mix different types of alcohol or drugs
  • Don’t share using equipment
  • Call 999 if a friend becomes unresponsive
  • Carry naloxone – training and kits available from We Are With You naloxone champions

Prof Sanjay Arya, consultant cardiologist and medical director at Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, has seen the serious effects of drug and alcohol use.

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He said alarm bells start ringing when medical staff see a young person in A&E who is having a cardiac arrest and question whether it is drug-related.

He said: “Both alcohol and several drugs affect the heart directly. I have seen so many people in my last 23 years as a consultant cardiologist where alcohol was a very big toxic agent and a toxin for the heart muscles and people develop heart failure.

"The good thing is if you stop drinking, your heart gets better. The chances of dying from alcohol-induced cardiomyopathy are very high, but the chances of recovering increase after stopping or going back to a sensible amount of drinking and you can get back to a normal life.”

It is not just cocaine and alcohol that affect the heart, with Prof Arya also seeing patients who have been using steroids.

He said: “People who use them can die suddenly because their heart goes into a dangerous rhythm. If you stop taking them, your risk of dying decreases very rapidly.”

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