What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

For this doctor, a son’s recent death by overdose inspires his mission to rescue others

Dr. Jim Baker dreaded getting that call for years: his son had fatally overdosed from opioids. He had watched Max go through the downward spiral of addiction, then recover and get sober, but a hospitalization for a car crash made him relapse. Now Baker does everything he can to educate others about the risks and devastation of opioid use. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next, the latest in our continuing coverage of the opioid crisis, America Addicted.

    It's the story of a doctor who, less than a year ago, suffered a devastating personal loss to opioids, but now is doing everything he can to keep other families from suffering the same fate.

    Miles O'Brien filed this report as part of our weekly series the Leading Edge.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Spend the day with physician Jim Baker, and you will understand America's opioid crisis in a uniquely professional and personal way.

    He lives in Holden, Massachusetts, a Norman Rockwell town just north of Worcester. Idyllic as it seems, there is death all around.

  • Dr. James Baker:

    In that time it took us to go around this block, of a minute, including my house right there, four deaths and one person in recovery. And so this is Holden.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Less than a year ago, death by overdose came to his family. He lost his son Max, or Macky, as his family called him. He was 23.

  • Dr. James Baker:

    Macky was a sensitive, caring, warm, brilliant young man. He was so smart, it was scary.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    He always enjoyed music?

  • Dr. James Baker:

    Yes. He started playing seriously when he was about 10, and he would play every day, multiple times a day.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And because he was the drummer, the band played here. Jim Baker can remember the night things changed.

  • Dr. James Baker:

    I was up in this room. They did the first half of their set, which was clear and strong music. Then they took a break. When they came back, they were — the timing was off. The changes weren't right. I thought, what happened?

    I found out later that they had got a hold of pills. And within a year, he had moved on to heroin. How that happened, I still don't know.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And so began a downward spiral. He was flunking out of school, losing friends and his music deteriorated.

  • Dr. James Baker:

    He had the deepest desire to stop. He knew — he said, "If I don't stop, it's going to kill me." But he couldn't do it on his own, and I couldn't find treatment.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    He was trying to find a fellow doctor willing and able to give Macky treatment with Suboxone, a combination of two drugs. One answers an addict's craving for opioids. The other blocks the high. But precious few doctors provide the treatment.

  • Dr. James Baker:

    The sad truth is, they say, I don't want those patients in my office or, in more private conversation, it takes too much time, I don't want to deal with it.

    I have heard people say, our group talked about it. We voted against it. There is no reimbursement.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Jim Baker spent many years as an emergency room doctor, and now works for hospice. He makes house calls to people who need opioids to manage their pain.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Today, he is checking in on Bob Hopwood (ph).

  • Dr. James Baker:

    Do you feel like, when you use it, if you just had a little bit more, it would help you?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    He works hard to insure his terminally ill patients avoid unneeded suffering with pain.

  • Dr. James Baker:

    Physicians are over tuned to this. And What's happening now is, physicians are responding by saying, I am writing for fewer opioids. I don't write for opioids anymore.

    And it is having a negative effect for people who have real pain and who need relief. Now they can't find it. The pendulum has definitely swung back too far, and now people who really have pain cannot find relief.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But he understands all too well the crisis that has caused this overreaction.

    As his son's journey into the darkness of addiction worsened, Jim Baker felt he had no choice. He told Macky to leave the house, which prompted this letter.

  • Dr. James Baker:

    I said, "Macky, you can call me anytime, 24 hours a day no matter where I am. I will help however I can. Just stay with it. I love you so much. Dad."

  • Miles O’Brien:

    He did stay with it. He finally found treatment, and he got off the heroin.

  • Dr. James Baker:

    He was able to maintain sobriety for two years or so, and he was doing great. He was in college. He had fallen in love.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    He and Emma were planning on getting married, a storybook ending. It seemed like he had beaten the odds. And then, Thanksgiving last year, a horrible twist of fate.

  • Dr. James Baker:

    It was late at night and coming down this road. His impact was right here, boom. A young girl, we guess, just didn't see him coming because of a bush or a house there. He fractured and deformed his right hand, his drumming hand, his writing hand. And he was bruised up in his chest and his face. And he was beat up pretty good.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    As he went into surgery, Macky told the anesthesiologist not to give him opioids.

  • Dr. James Baker:

    But I found out later, she was injecting him with fentanyl. And when he came out of the operating room, the first thing he said with glazed eyes is, "I need drugs."

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Addicted once again.

    A month later, he got the call he had been dreading for years.

  • Dr. James Baker:

    This is the road I was driving to when his brother called me and said, "Dad, Macky is unconscious."

    And I was coming up here hoping and hoping, please, Macky, please. Couldn't get the door open. And I'm asking him, is he breathing? Is he responding? And the answers were really scary.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    He was gone. One of 33,000 Americans who die each year because of an opioid overdose.

  • Dr. James Baker:

    So, we're coming up upon a cemetery. The field right above that is where he learned to play tee-ball.

    Hey, Macky, dad is here. Just want to tell you, I love you, pal. We're going to keep on fighting,

  • Miles O’Brien:

    On this night, they gathered at a health club in Holden. They pedaled hard to raise money for the Max Baker Foundation, and they heard Jim Baker's talk, poignant and practical.

  • Dr. James Baker:

    My goal is to have everyone here know more about opioids than they did when they came through the door.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    He told a rapt audience what to look for, slurred speech, pinpoint pupils and long-sleeve shirts.

  • Dr. James Baker:

    The first thing that you do when you feel that problem is there, please don't judge. Recognize that that person inside of that addiction is still your son or daughter or brother. And they have behaviors that they can't control.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    He told them to get Narcan, an over-the-counter drug that can instantly counteract an overdose.

  • Dr. James Baker:

    It's one of the few miracle drugs I have ever seen. A person is blue, not breathing, dusky, even cool, dying, and get Narcan in, and, three, two, one, they sit up and go, what, what? Where am I?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And he told them to get a sledgehammer.

  • Dr. James Baker:

    And if I hear a funny sound in the bathroom, or a thud, and knock, knock, knock, and there is no answer in there, I'm going to pick this up and I'm going to whack that door handle, and then I'm going to whack that hinge. I'm going to bust down that door and get in.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    This is Jim Baker's mission, his way of channeling profound grief.

  • Dr. James Baker:

    I feel like, what would it mean to me had someone who was suffering done what it took, done what was necessary to help Macky?

    And I would be forever — and I can't really talk about it, but the most meaningful thing I could ever ask of someone. But it's now my turn to do it for somebody else, and I know that's what he'd want me to do.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Max Baker is no longer with us, but his father is spending his days hoping to make sure his son's life has enduring purpose.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in Holden, Massachusetts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So tough to watch.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest