Oxford County Deputy Sgt. Matthew Baker carries life-saving Narcan in his police cruiser. If it had been law-enforcement equipment in 2015 he might have been able to save his daughter Ronni from a fatal overdose. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

REGION — Narcan has emerged as a treatment that has saved countless lives of people who have overdosed on drugs laced with fentanyl. At first found in hospitals and with medical first-responders, after 2015, law enforcement began stocking it in cruiser medical kits. Doctors prescribed it to at-risk patients, and since 2018, it has been available without a prescription at pharmacies in Maine.

Despite its life-saving purpose, some critics point to the inequity of drug-users being saved by Narcan at not cost to them, while others, who live with diseases like diabetes, have trouble paying for the insulin they need to stay alive.

It took an override of former Governor Paul Lepage’s veto four years ago for Maine lawmakers to make sure people who could be saved by Narcan could access it.

Many people continue to stigmatize making live-saving tools available to people with substance use disorder (SUD). And statistically it’s true that chances are good a person revived by Narcan once, will overdose again.

But there is also a chance that the one day of life that Narcan can gain for a drug addict might be the day they need to seek recovery. In some situations, overdoses happen to people with SUD during a relapse following sustained periods of sobriety.

Such was the case for one overdose survivor who agreed to talk to the Advertiser Democrat about her experience with Narcan on the condition we not use her real name; in this story she is going by “Samantha.”

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Samantha had been clean for 18 months.

“What keeps me alive, and what keeps you alive, we should both be happy for,” says Samantha, who made it to the next day after her overdose because EMTs administered Narcan to her. “I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Narcan.”

Samantha began experimenting with drugs when she was 12, after a friend was prescribed pain killers for a serious injury. She described her introduction as something the two did together because they were bored.

By the time she was 16 she found that she could make money buying and reselling prescription pills illegally.

“It was a money thing,” she explains. “I could get a pill for $2 and sell it for $6. It progressed – I could try them all. The money was incredible and it led to me using more because I had so much for free.”

Eventually prescription drugs became harder to get and much costlier and Samantha abandoned pills for heroin, in about 2015, she said. She seemed to have a high tolerance against them though and when she grew tired of using she was able to walk away from it for a time.

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She was learning that her drug use was her way of self-medicating, to cope with what she calls her poorly managed mental health.

“I was at a point of working 70 hours a week,” she says. “I was exhausted but couldn’t sleep. I had poorly managed mental health, I guess you could say. I just wanted to sleep and I knew heroin would help me sleep. So I went and got it, and the feeling, it was yesssss.”

After that first hit of heroin after all that time, she tried it a couple more times on different days. Then once more, for the fourth time in a week. But that fourth time, though she thought she was using heroin, she had snorted straight fentanyl.

Police found Samantha overdosed on the sidewalk. She was trying to get home and did not make it.

“I woke up in an ambulance,” Samantha says. “They were giving me Narcan. I actually thought I was at home, putting down flooring. I had been working on my house before I went to get drugs.

“When I woke up, my mom thought I was dead. They took me to the hospital. I had surgery because my lung had collapsed. And I thought I would never again make my poor mother experience that.”

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After Samantha was revived by Narcan, she swore off heroin for good. She recently stopped using meth amphetamine and after a more recent OUI she began looking at her alcohol use differently.

“I can watch someone do a line of heroin and I don’t want it,” she says. “I know I’ll die …. When I pick up a drink it’s the same death. I can watch someone do heroin and not do it, but if I’m with someone who has a drink, I want to drink with them.

“I was like, I’m sick of doing drugs. I’ll quit entirely and drink. So I drank a little bit, and a little more. And it’s not like I drink a lot, but I just don’t make good decisions. The mechanism, whatever it is, I don’t have it and I make poor decisions.”

Samantha is still alive and able to work on recovery because on the one day drugs almost killed her Narcan was available to revive her.

Oxford County Sgt. Matthew Baker has been instrumental in educating western Maine about the realities of substance use disorder since the overdose death of his daughter Ronni in 2015. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

Back in 2015, Oxford County Sgt. Matthew Baker might have been able to save his own daughter Ronni from a drug overdose if he had had Narcan in his cruiser. It is a story he has shared with many in the years since.

It is also one reason why law enforcement is now equipped with the life-saving treatment.

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“I came home from work and found her actively overdosing,” Baker recalls. “I did CPR on her. I didn’t have Narcan.

“I felt her heart beat once or twice and she passed away before rescue got there. They worked on her for an hour and they administered Narcan but it was too late for it to work.”

Baker did not know about his daughter’s substance use disorder until that night. He is not sure when Ronni first began using heroin. He believes it was in 2013, and that when she became pregnant it stopped. Her daughter was born in 2014.

“When she had her baby, things were fantastic,” he says. “She wasn’t using drugs. She was an awesome mother and loved her baby. She lived with us at the time with her baby. But after about six months she stopped breastfeeding. Within three months she overdosed and died.

“I only found out Ronni was using heroin after she died. Afterwards they found some in the house. They tested it and it came back positive for fentanyl and heroin.”

During the same weekend that Ronni died there were four other reported overdoses in western Oxford county and the Conway, New Hampshire area that involved fentanyl-laced heroin. While Baker assumes it was all likely from related supply, it was not something that can be proven.

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Ronni’s death changed Baker’s life for good.

“It was devastating to learn that our daughter had (substance use disorder),” Baker says. “Absolutely devastating. I see it all the time at work. Then when you realize that your child is affected the same way as other people, it really tears you apart. It’s not something I wanted for my kids.”

That tragic weekend signaled change for western Maine as well. A series of forums were scheduled in several Oxford county towns to address the opiate addiction crisis. Baker was not even sure who was behind them, but he was asked to attend and answer questions for those attending.

“The forums were comprised of concerned community members,” he says. “All kinds of people attended. Townspeople, selectmen, attorneys, police officers, concerned people. They saw it happen in the community, it was happening in their families.”

Those forums led to the founding of Western Maine Addiction Recovery Initiative (WMARI), which Baker has been involved with from the start. He currently serves as Chairman on WMARI’s board of directors.

Another result of the community forums was a new resolve to equip law enforcement with Narcan.

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“We realized we were having more and more overdoses,” Baker says. “So the sheriff’s office administration elected to put Narcan in the cruisers. I believe all police departments now carry Narcan. We’ve had them for about six years now. Now it’s become part of our equipment.”

Monique Hill is from Oxford Hills, although she now lives in Sanford. Narcan saved her life twice. She in turn has saved the lives of four others with her own Narcan. Hill is currently staying at a sober living house in eastern Maine.

“I’ve had people show up dead in the front seat of someone’s car, in my driveway,” she says. “Because I had it at my house and it saved their lives. I’ve had people go out on my floor and thankfully I had it. They’d be dead without it, I’d be dead without it.

“The first time I overdosed there was no Narcan available. I was driven to the hospital, where I was Narcan’d four times. I had been dead for about two and a half minutes that first time.”

When Hill overdosed a second time while in a friend’s car, he administered her with injectible Narcan. Once at the hospital it was given to her again.

Narcan is a violent way to be revived.

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“When you come to, think of it as coming back from hell,” Hill explains. “You’re covered in sweat. You’re so jittery. I was so jittery I was shaking off the operating table. They had to give me IV sedatives to calm me down.

“Every joint in your body hurts. You have goosebumps, you’re sick to your stomach. You vomit, you defecate. It’s the most unpleasant experience of my life. To this day.”

Narcan blocks the body’s receptors from the drugs causing the overdose but it does not stop addiction. As soon as Hill’s boyfriend picked her up from the hospital after her first overdose, they went right back to the same place and started heroin again.

“It wasn’t like, ‘oh, that just saved my life,’ it was like s–t, I need to feel better,” she says.

But after her second overdose Hill contracted a lung infection from her drug use. She could not return to getting high. She was at Stephens Memorial hospital, going through significant withdrawal.

“I wasn’t gonna go out with a shot of heroin,” she said. “I wasn’t gonna go out in my sleep or an overdose. I was going to feel everything, I was in agony.

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“I remember having a chest tube. At 34-years-old I had a test tube because I had no capacity to breathe with my left lung. They were waiting to get me a bed a Maine Med. My withdrawals were so severe at Stephens that they had me sedated.”

Hill says doctors at SMH told her she had the highest level of withdrawal that they had ever seen. Once at Maine Medical Center she let go of 1,000 cc’s of fluid in an hour. Her lung expanded so fast she thought she would die.

“They had doctors from all over the hospital rushing into my room,” Hills says. “It was the scariest thing that’s ever happened in my life I wasn’t going to go out overdosed. I was going to die with a clear mind. That scared me.

“Overdosing would have been sweet compared to what I was going through. But I had a vision of my 11-year-old son standing over his mother’s grave. He tells everyone, ‘my mama’s crazy, but don’t you talk about her. Don’t say anything bad about her.’ If I can be his hero after all the s- -t I’ve done, then I can be my own hero.”

Narcan gave Hill one more day, a day she needed in order to face her substance use disorder and seek help.

“People are going to hit a million rock bottoms and it’s gonna take what it takes for them,” she says. “Everyone’s story is different. For me, it took having a clear mind and almost dying.”

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