October 17, 2011

Shock, grief and lessons of overdose

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

SOUTH BERWICK - Matty Rix grew up in a community that had much to offer a happy, adventurous boy.

click image to enlarge

Matt Rix holds a photo of his son, Matty, in his backyard in South Berwick. Matty, who planned to join the Marines, died of a fentanyl overdose in 2009.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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Matty Rix, a talented high school wrestler, died at age 19.

Contributed photo

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PAINKILLERS IN MAINE: Stories, video interviews and links to resources.

He took advantage of the open spaces and the forests and streams, whether riding his four-wheeler with friends or fishing and hunting with his father.

But small-town, rural southern Maine also had something else to offer its curious youth: A steady supply of pain pills and other prescription drugs.

"They can get anything they want," said his father, Matt Rix.

Matty Rix, a talented high school wrestler on the verge of joining the Marines, died from a prescription drug overdose in April 2009. He was 19.

"He was my only son," said Matt Rix, surrounded by photographs of Matty hugging his dog, showing off a prize trout and draping his arm around his father. "He'd do everything to make me happy."

The Rix family was hardly the only Maine family to lose a loved one to misused painkillers in 2009.

The state set a record for fatal drug overdoses that year -- 179. Rix, who died across the border in New Hampshire, isn't counted in that total. Twelve years earlier, before the plague of prescription drug abuse first swept the state, Maine had 34 fatal drug overdoses.

In fact, Matty Rix was not even the only young adult raised in southern York County to die of an overdose of painkillers that week.

The day before Rix died, 22-year-old Brandy Sewall and 20-year-old Whitney Lizotte, both of whom grew up in neighboring Berwick, ingested a fatal mixture of alcohol and prescription drugs.

Rix apparently did not know the two women, and the deaths were not directly connected. All three, however, died just across the border in New Hampshire, where they rented apartments.

The two young women took methadone, a time-release painkiller and addiction treatment drug, and Klonopin, an anti-anxiety medication that also depresses the respiratory system, according to news reports at the time.

The mixture of an opiate and benzodiazapene can cause a user to simply stop breathing and is an increasingly common cause of overdoses.

"I don't see anyone who takes one drug anymore," said Dr. Karen Simone, director of the Northern New England Poison Control Center.

'YOU CAN'T SMELL THE PILLS'

Nearly all of Maine's deadly drug overdoses -- 165 of the 179 deaths in 2009, for example -- are attributed to prescription drugs.

In 2005, the number of all fatal drug overdoses exceeded deaths from traffic accidents in Maine for the first time. That number included deaths from pharmaceuticals as well as heroin, cocaine and other illicit drugs. In 2009 and 2010, the number of fatal overdoses that involved pharmaceutical drugs exceeded the deaths from motor vehicle accidents.

"For me, that says it all," said Ronni Katz, coordinator of the Portland Overdose Prevention Project, which teaches addicts to recognize the warning signs of a potentially deadly overdose.

Matty Rix was the baby of his family. One of his three older sisters, Deanna, is a well-known athlete and a member of the U.S. national wrestling team, now training in Colorado.

Matt Rix, his father, is the longtime wrestling coach at Marshwood High School. He remembers when he and his ex-wife decided to move their family from Sanford back to his hometown of South Berwick. They had heard stories about drugs and alcohol in Sanford schools, he said.

Rix felt safe in the small town, but knew the importance of keeping his kids active and watching closely for substance abuse.

(Continued on page 2)

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