Father calls for 'Amber's Law' after daughter's drug-related death

A father whose daughter who died after health complications related to a drug addiction said he felt powerless to help her overcome her addiction once she turned 18.

Ron MacRae wants family members to have power to intervene

Ron MacRae said his daughter loved animals and dreamt of being a veterinarian, but she spiralled deep into a drug addiction which eventually contributed to her death. (Submitted)

Ron MacRae says he still feels like his daughter Amber could walk through the door at any minute.

Amber died in 2015 from complications related to her long-time drug addiction. She was 25. ​

"She always had a smile for somebody, she'd always make somebody feel better even when she was feeling the worst."

Amber's absence haunts MacRae.

"We'd have talks with her and I'd say 'Look, Amber. I don't want to bury you." he said. "I said that to scare her. I didn't mean that would actually happened."

He was the one burdened with the final decision of whether to take her off life support. Now he's advocating changes he hopes will prevent other parents from having to do the same.

Health complications

Amber already had a brush with death in 2014. 

She had moved to Kamsack as a participant in a methadone program, according to MacRae.

"My daughter stopped doing drugs for a long time, but the damage was already there," he said.

One day Amber didn't pick her daughter up from daycare.  A friend found her at home, lying helpless in her own waste.

Amber was transported to Regina, where doctors found a staph infection stemming from her earlier drug use.

Multiple procedures, including open-heart surgery, saved her life at 24. 

Afterward, Amber moved back to the Yorkton area, where MacRae lived, and continued to travel to Kamsack for her methadone. She stayed with the program with the hopes of getting her daughter back.

She never did. 

MacRae said Amber was being prescribed high doses, but wanted to quit. He said she asked her doctor to get her off the program to no avail. 

Amber later relapsed again and ended up in the Yorkton hospital, MacRae said. MacRae suspected it was another staph infection when he heard her screaming in pain. 

When he arrived back at the hospital the next morning, doctors were preparing a helicopter to take Amber back to Regina.

MacRae said he was given three-and-half minutes to talk to his daughter. It was the last time he saw her awake. She spent her final few days in a coma.

MacRae said her condition was horrific. She swelled up like a balloon and her skin peeled like a cooked ham.

"She's in a coma but she's in pain, in extreme pain. You could see tears in her eyes," he said. "I can't even imagine what her brain would have been doing."

The doctors tried to save her again, but eventually they told MacRae his daughter would never wake up. He made the painful decision to unplug her.

"We watched her take every single breath and fight for it," he said. 

"I can fix anything (but) watching my daughter die and watching her go through this stuff — I couldn't do anything."

A call for change

MacRae said he felt helpless after Amber turned 18.

Before that they could seek a secure detox order via the The Youth Drug Detoxification and Stabilization Act. It's a judicial process that allows youth to be subject to up to 15 days of involuntary care in a secure-facility or 30 days in the youth's home community.

Once Amber was an adult, her family couldn't force her take that first step to treatment. 

There's got to be something. We can't just be losing our children- Ron MacRae

Health practitioners are bound by privacy and confidentiality standards, said Gary Shepherd, Director of Mental Health and Addictions in Yorkton. 

Adults have a right to refuse health care. 

"Sometimes that right to live a high risk lifestyle — that's what they are doing — takes precedence," Shepherd said. "Unless there's legislative changes, than that is the way it is despite how hard that is."

He said situations like this, where parents feel as if they have no options, are not uncommon.

"Families are left frustrated and ultimately some of these people that are currently using continue to do harm to themselves," Shepherd said.

Health Minister Jim Reiter​ addressed concerns regarding addiction services earlier this month. He said ​the province will increase funding for mental health and addictions services in the next budget.

Macrae said he's witnessed his daughter — and others — lose themselves within addiction. "They lose everything and without their family around them and people around them they, they disappear." 

Ron MacRae said there was a lack of resources for his daughter at the times when she did seek help. Yorkton does not have a detox facility. (Submitted)

He dreams of a law, perhaps called "Amber's Law," which would allow family members to have another adult family member put in a secure detox facility for a set period of time, if medical evidence supports their claims.

"Thirty days isn't much — but for a family that's 30 days your child is alive," he said.

"From a dad's point of view, if you see your child that's fighting this kind of stuff there should be somewhere you can go to to actually have this person get help when they're not able to do it on their own." 

MacRae said the government needs to take a closer look at what it can do. 

"There's got to be something. We can't just be losing our children." 

About the Author

Kendall Latimer

Journalist

Kendall Latimer began her journalism career in print as a newspaper reporter in Saskatoon and then as a feature writer in Bangkok. She joined CBC Saskatchewan in 2016. Latimer shares stories on web, radio and television. Contact her: kendall.latimer@cbc.ca