"I had written my daughter's obituary in my head a hundred times."
Those are the words of Melissa Patterson, who for six years tried everything to get her child off drugs and finally turned to Fargo Police Chief David Todd and said: "Please help me save my daughter."
This is a story of desperation and compassion, of how a cop looked beyond the statistics and saw a human being and decided that special measures were needed to save her. This is a story of a single successful outcome, so far, with the hope of broadening it to the entire Fargo-Moorhead community.
Melissa Patterson's daughter is named Alex Hewitt and she is 24 years old. She is currently serving an 18-month sentence at the Dakota Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Center in New England, N.D., on felony drug charges. Alex is going through rehabilitation while she's behind bars. She's been clean now for 150 days, her longest stretch of committed sobriety since she was a student at Fargo North High School.
Alex is in prison because her mother wanted her there and Todd, with the help of city prosecutors, helped put her there instead of cycling Alex through local jails and rehab and attempted 90-day involuntary commitments. Melissa saw it as the only option to save her daughter from dying because of an addiction to opiates-heroin and fentanyl. At her low point, Alex was jabbing a hypodermic needle directly into her neck to inject opiates.
"I am so incredibly thankful for the efforts made by Chief Todd," Patterson said. "He's humble and doesn't take any credit he deserves, but without his help I wouldn't be able to celebrate my daughter's sobriety with her."
"We have to be incredibly proud of Melissa, too," Todd said. "She didn't give up. She kept trying to find something for her child."
The tale begins when Alex was a sophomore at North, 17 years old and an A student. She'd been in dance since she was a small child and had hopes of earning a college scholarship. A good kid. But she and her friends began "Robo-tripping," chugging a bottle of Robitussin cough syrup to get buzzed. From there, she began using prescription pain pills and soon after-very soon, according to her mother-was using and addicted to heroin.
"She went from zero to 100 in a very short time," Patterson said. "She came from a good home. Wasn't in any legal trouble up until this point. But this doesn't discriminate. With this drug, with the opiates, the thing that is so incredibly frightening is that the amount of time it takes to get addicted is so incredibly short. You don't have a large window of time before they are addicted."
The nightmare continued for years. Melissa kept fighting, getting Alex into different rehab clinics about 10 times. But, Melissa said, because health insurance only covers 30 days of rehab, Alex-like many addicts-was released before she was ready. It was a vicious cycle. Each time, Alex returned to her old friends and her old ways. She was headed toward being another young person dead from an overdose.
Melissa, meanwhile, was dying in her own way.
"I would wake up in the morning and not know if she was going to be with me. Any unannounced knocks on the door, I would get physically sick," Patterson said. "I ended up in the hospital because my body essentially just started to shut down.
"The all-night drives looking for your child because you haven't heard from them for four or five days. Reaching down in that phone log and calling numbers that don't look familiar to you in hopes that someone on the other end can tell you where your daughter is. It's hard to put into words unless you've been there. I don't wish this on anyone."
Alex OD'd in March, but paramedics revived her. Melissa was not notified and was upset. She asked the Fargo police for help, begging them to arrest Alex and lock her up, but was told there was nothing that could be done until Alex was caught doing something worthy of going to prison.
That break, if that's the proper term for being arrested, came on Aug. 3. Alex was arrested and charged with possession of drug paraphernalia for the second time, a felony. Melissa this time called Todd and asked: "Can we figure something out?"
The mother and the police chief visited, considering options. Patterson wanted her daughter incarcerated away from Fargo for a lengthy period of time, away from the drugs, as a last-ditch effort to get her clean. Todd said he could work with prosecutors to set an unattainable bail and have them push for the maximum allowable sentence. He said Alex would get treatment while she was in jail.
"Working with the prosecutors, we asked for a $20,000 cash-only bail to prevent her friends from bailing her out and we asked for the maximum 18-month sentence," Patterson said. "Alex was angry with me and even the judge commented that the bail seemed pretty extreme," but the Cass County District Court judge went along, once the situation was explained.
That was in September. Alex has been drug-free since then and has about 15 months left of her sentence. She someday wants to tell her story, Patterson said, but is unavailable to comment at this time because of her incarceration.
"The last few months with Alex incarcerated have been the most peaceful for me in six years," Patterson said. "I've been able to go to bed at night and sleep because I don't have to worry about that unannounced knock on the door or the phone call in the middle of the night."
Alex's and Melissa's story is being told because Todd wrote a letter to The Forum that ran Wednesday, Dec. 28. The chief described the overwhelming number of parents who've reached out in his two years on the job, begging for help for their son or daughter who'd become addicted to heroin or fentanyl. Todd referred to an unnamed "mother pleading with me ... because her daughter's addiction was to the point where she was injecting directly into her neck and it was just a matter of time before she was going to be dead."
The mother in that case was Melissa. The daughter was Alex. When I asked Todd if he wanted to be a guest on my 970 WDAY radio show to talk about the issue, he agreed. He also asked if Melissa could join the discussion, too. She did and shared her compelling story with listeners.
"I was not prepared for the contact I was going to have with parents that had kids with with opioid issues," Todd said. "Letters, phone calls, appointments. 'Can you help us with our son or daughter? They are in their early 20s, they started with pain pills and now they're into heroin.' Then they were hearing about fentanyl. They were worried their kids were going to overdose and die. That is a legitimate fear. It is happening."
"I was taken aback by the number of these letters and visits that I was getting from parents going through this-and from parents who had already lost a son or daughter."
Todd talks of finding "pathways" to prevention, early intervention, treatment and recovery. He praises local leaders for starting the Blue Ribbon Commission on Addiction. He also credits the 21st Century Cures Act that will provide federal funding for local programs.
"My goal is to keep this issue at the forefront of this community," Todd said. "There are a lot of people who don't understand the family dynamic of addiction, the fear that families live with. ... These parents are living with that fear. I don't know that people know this about addiction. It's important to hear that side of it."