Doctor David Caldicott, the new toxicology expert at Calvary Hospital's emergency department. Photo: Jay Cronan
David Caldicott calls it irony, but for two young Canberra men on the verge of death the doctor's irony became their life-saving good fortune.
The two men, found unconscious at the University of Canberra after a drug overdose on Thursday, were brought to Calvary Hospital's small emergency department unable to breathe.
But waiting for them was one of Calvary's newest emergency department specialists, who just so happened to be a toxicology expert who helped discover the new designer drug that it is believed almost killed them.
Dr Caldicott described the mood on Thursday in the emergency department as tense.
"In any event where you are advised that two people are coming in under critical conditions like that, and receiving advanced life-support on route - it's a bit nerve-racking," Dr Caldicott said.
"It's nerve-racking to find out one is coming, but to find out two are coming simultaneously puts any department under strain."
The Irish doctor has only been in Canberra for a matter of months and already loves the city, but is also acutely aware of the capital's dangerous underbelly.
"For people who labour on the misconception that Canberra is a clean-living, above-board city, they'll be very surprised to find out there's quite a lot of illicit drug use," he said.
"I'm not here four, five months and I've already seen two significant drug overdoses with novel illicit compounds."
Dr Caldicott, part of a team in Britain who first identified methoxetamine or MXE - believed to be behind this latest double overdose - said the underground market in new, readily-available party drugs represents a unique challenge for emergency staff who often simply do not know what a patient might have taken.
The two men, who have recovered remarkably well and were expected to be released from hospital within days, were lucky to have the humble Dr Caldicott at hand.
"In all of these sort of circumstances, a little bit of knowledge goes a long way. It's the unknown that's terrifying," he said, before praising the work of Calvary's ED team, as well as commending the patience of those waiting in the ED whose treatment was delayed by the emergency.
Dr Caldicott, an outspoken advocate of harm-minimisation tactics over prohibition, said educating youth about the effect of drug-taking, not just on themselves but also the community, is key. "There is a moral responsibility for young people to think about," he said, before clarifying that drug education should be about making smart choices, rather than good or evil choices.
"The most important thing is the message of [asking] is this really what you want to do? Do you need to do this?"
Dr Caldicott said that when drug choices are broken down into cost-benefits and common sense, most youths would be more likely to "kick back and have a beer" rather than risk taking a product which includes too many unknown quantities and could be life-threatening or fatal.
"The reality is that those who sell drugs for a living aren't particularly concerned in any other aspect of drugs other than selling them. Quality control is not a major issue for them," he said.
"The big problem for the illegal drugs or the illicit drugs or the unknown drugs is you have no idea what dose, or what the actual substance is. This is a sort of commonsense explanation that people actually respond to."