FRYEBURG, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — A new Maine law is aimed at curbing opioid abuse and diversion. It also aims to strengthen the state's prescription drug monitoring program. The question is whether these policies will have any impact on opioid abuse, including Maine's heroin epidemic. For one Fryeburg family, it comes too late.
"I guess the only thing I can hope for is that, number one, when she died she knew I was there, and that she's at peace and that something good will come out of this," Matt Baker shared inside the log home he built for his family in Fryeburg. Two years ago, inside that home, tragedy robbed him of what he called a "perfect life."
The Baker family's story is one we are hearing too much of — their daughter, accomplished, bright, caring, somehow got caught up first in alcohol, then pot, prescription drugs and on one cold February night two years ago, heroin. Her story: one the Bakers hope will change how people view those with substance use disorder.
"She was just a bubbly, carefree girl," is how Matt Baker describes his second daughter Ronni Marie. Baker can remember that February night like it was yesterday. His daughter, just 23, died in his arms.
Baker had just gotten home from work — he's a sergeant with the Oxford County sheriff's office. "Ronni was unconscious, slumped over the toilet," he struggles to describe. "I knew she was overdosing, her fingers were blue, her lips were blue. I've seen a lot of dead people in 30 years and I knew what was going on."
Ronnie Baker, a bright student-athlete at Fryeburg Academy, loved horses as much as she loved hunting with her dad. She was also a new mother. On that night two years ago, her struggle with substance use disorder, or SUD, ended with her death. Baker suspects she started using heroin shortly after she stopped nursing. "I always knew there was something off and I tried to talk to her a lot," he said. "I grew up in an alcoholic family so I knew some of the signs of addiction.”
Sgt. Baker says until it hit his family, he didn't grasp the power and control heroin can have over individuals and families. “It's young people, it's old people, it's doctors, it's nurses, police officers, high school kids. I mean, it's everybody." Baker says since he lost Ronni, he has grown intolerant and saddened by outspoken critics who don’t understand how widespread the problem is. “These people who are saying all the negative things — 'addicted people should die,' and 'junkies should die' — they've never held their child while they died. If they did, that would change things."
In fact, Baker says he personally knows 50 people who are addicted to heroin, and that's just in one region of Oxford County. The problem is so big, he travels to police stations to share his story, to change what he calls a "mistaken stereotype."
He shared one conversation he had with a fellow officer shortly after Narcan was given to patrol officers in Oxford County. “We were having coffee one night and one of my friends said, 'I don't want to get Narcan, because a junkie is a junkie or whatever.' I just kind of absorbed that and, it's like, 'you know what? That's my daughter.'" Baker’s eyes well up. "The word I hate the most now is junkie. I hate that word."
Baker and his wife are now raising Ronni's 3-year-old daughter, Claire, teaching her about compassion, kindness and sharing stories about the mother she won't ever get to know. “I show Claire the full moon and we call it the mumma moon. When there's a bright moon, we go out on the porch and we talk to mumma, and when we're done, she always says goodnight mum and goodnight moon."
Since Ronni's death, several programs have been started to help addicts in western Maine. The Western Maine Addiction Recovery Initiative and the Mount Washington Valley Recovery Support Program.
Around the state, there's a program called "Project Save Me." Anyone with substance use disorder — alcohol, opiates, opioids — can ask any police officer for help and they will get it. Matt Baker says no judgement, no arrest. “No judgement. If you have dope on you, you give us your dope and tell us you want help. We will help you. You will not get arrested, you will get help.”