Son's overdose death drives this Minnesota legislator's work

Rep. Dave Baker lost his son to opioid overdose.
Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, lost his 25-year-old son to opioid overdose. The athlete's back injury led to pain pills and ended with heroin. Baker has led efforts to expand programs that prevent opioid overdose deaths.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

Dan Baker had just been kicked out of a drug treatment program for sharing medication with a roommate. With his family out of town on vacation, the 25-year-old took a TV from his parents' empty house in Willmar and headed to Minneapolis in search of heroin.

"We'd been trying to call Dan all morning because we knew he was home. And he would never answer, never answer the phone," said his father, Dave Baker.

"My wife was really worried," he said. "'Something's not right.'"

Dave and the rest of his family flew back from their California vacation that next morning, still unable to reach their son.

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When they landed, there was a message on Dave's phone to call one of the restaurants they own. The urgency of the message, he said, felt "odd."

Dave called as soon as the plane landed. He was told that Dan had died of a heroin overdose that morning in a Maplewood home.

"It was a horrible situation on the airplane, on the tarmac. It was full of passengers," Dave said. "We just had to go into: 'Now what do we do? Oh my god, we've actually lost one of our babies, and we can never get this back.'"

It was March 9, 2011. It was the sort of loss that made it hard to breathe, Dave said, even hours afterwards.

'Dan said he would be OK'

Photos of Dan show a clean-cut, athletic young man with short brown hair. Growing up, he wasn't one for drinking or partying. Instead, he played baseball and hockey. His father said he was a "good friend to a lot of people."

It wasn't until he enrolled at the University of St. Thomas that doctors first prescribed him opioid painkillers for a minor back injury that kept nagging at him.

The first hint that the pain pills had become a problem for Dan came not long after, when his longtime high school girlfriend told his parents she was worried. She said he wasn't going to class. He was staying in his room. He just wasn't himself.

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"He used them more to take away the pain," Dave said. "He felt this unusual buzz, and I think that was sort of the beginning of what he was able to not turn off so easily."

Dan's parents started accompanying him to doctor visits. They found out he'd been doctor-shopping, getting more than one doctor to prescribe him the painkillers he wanted. But even with the support of his family, Dan struggled with the cravings.

"When he could, he always preferred the pills, but it was just getting harder and harder to find. And then he'd have to buy them off the street. It was very expensive," Dave said. "When he couldn't get the pills any longer, I think, he dabbled with the heroin, probably a year before he died."

A stint at an inpatient treatment center in Granite Falls, Minn., led to a sober streak, a new job and a room in a halfway house in Rochester. But it all fell apart after he was laid off. His father thinks this is when he first experimented with heroin.

Dan's family left for vacation after he enrolled back in the Granite Falls treatment program. The night before they were scheduled to return home, they got a call. Dan had been kicked out of the program for sharing medication with his roommate. Dan assured his father that he would be OK until they got home.

Instead, Dan and a friend he had met at rehab bought heroin in Minneapolis and went back to an acquaintance's home in Maplewood.

Dan knew he was going back to treatment and had no intentions of "hitting it hard that night," his father said. But the cravings won over.

"His body had been clean for two, three weeks," Dave said. "He thought he could probably do what he did before and his body was saying, 'Absolutely not.'"

The next morning, paramedics who had been called to the home pronounced Dan Baker dead.

'He's always there'

A father wants to protect his children at any cost, Dave said. Dan's death has left a void in his family.

"For our son and daughter, they'll have to know that they can't ever call on their older brother Dan and see what he's been up to," he said. "For us, it's that emptiness of a parent not being able to put your arms around your child, and maybe someday having grandchildren and having a wife, and those things that we'll always kind of wonder about."

But time, faith and community have helped heal some of the pain. Dave Baker and his wife have raised more than $130,000 in Dan's name for addiction support services and other causes. He was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2014 and has spearheaded efforts in the Legislature to expand programs that prevent opioid overdose deaths.

"My wife and I, we'll be buried with our son back in Aitkin, back in the cemetery," Dave said. "And we will always want to live our lives better because he was a part of it."

Signs of Dan are all over his father's office: a poster on the wall for a benefit for the foundation his wife and he created in Dan's name; a photo of Dan's face rotating through a digital picture frame.

"For me it's about making sure that every time I come in in the mornings here I always say, 'Good morning, Dan,'" Dave said. "And he's always there."