On the day her son Robert died, Tammy Lofink walked past his room and heard a strange sounding snore.
She paused for a moment, but remembered that he often snored.
What she didn’t know was that sound, also known as the death rattle, is a sign of a heroin overdose.
“I thought I should go check and then I just said, no he snores and walked past his bedroom,” Lofink said. “At that point obviously he was dying.”
When Robert’s girlfriend went to wake him around lunchtime, she discovered he was dead.
Four years ago this September, he took pills and heroin, a fatal mix that would take his life at only 18.
At the time, Lofink didn’t even know Robert had been using heroin. He had been to rehab for drugs a year earlier but he had graduated from high school, had a job and even signed up for a community college course.
That Saturday night, he had a friend over to their Carroll County house and did drugs behind his closed bedroom door. When his mother saw him that evening, she told him she loved him and said good night, the last words they exchanged.
Now, Lofink spends her days helping others who are confronting drug addiction as founder and president of Rising Above Addiction, which helps families navigate the path to recovery. This year, they also opened a sober house for girls called Reclaiming My Life, which was named in memory of Robert’s initials RML.
“From day one, people were drawn to you,” Lofink said in a letter she wrote to Robert this year. “You had such a unique personality and you were loved by so many people. It is not a surprise to me, that in death, you are just as special. Countless lives have been touched, changed and saved because of you.”
To help more people, Lofink helps connect people to resources that she didn’t have or know about. She said the opioid epidemic should be treated as a health crisis.
“It needs to be covered by insurance, we need long-term care to have more success. It’s killing our youth,” she said.
Robert played football in middle school and was interested in motorcycles and four wheelers, spending weekends with his dad and friends off-roading. Lofink believes he started drinking and smoking marijuana in middle school, around the same time he started sneaking out of the house.
Through high school, Lofink would drug test him and took him to specialists in Washington to get help for his concentration issues at school – he was treated for ADHD. But things started getting progressively worse, and one day he came home and it was clear he was on something.
She called 911 and they scrambled to get him into a rehab program. He spent 30 days at the Phoenix House in Alexandria.
One thing Lofink wishes she had known about was sober living programs like Reclaiming My Life. Girls who have completed rehab come to the house and must get a job, pay their own rent and attend meetings. They live there for about nine months to a year and then graduate from the program, which serves as a good transition because a month away isn’t enough to combat addiction, Lofink said.
“I wanted to provide the girls a safe and loving environment, I wanted them to feel like it’s home,” she said.
Rob’s attempt at recovery came during a challenging time as his maternal grandfather was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer.
Lofink started taking her father to appointments at Johns Hopkins and he eventually came to live with them and died in their living room under hospice care.
That was nine months before Robert’s fatal overdose. At one point, a bottle of morphine went missing and Lofink had to buy a safe to store his medication. Rob denied taking the morphine, and Lofink didn’t think he would steal medicine from his dying grandfather when they loved each other so much.
“That was real hard for me until just recently,” Lofink said. “I think finally I understood that my Rob wouldn’t have done that, but Rob on drugs would have.”
While access to naloxone has increased and is saving more people from overdoses, Lofink believes it is masking the problem because friends administer it and then serious overdoses are never reported. That is why she emphasizes long-term solutions to addiction like longer treatment plans, sober living programs and psychological therapy.
Today, Lofink’s life is bittersweet.
She has learned so much since the day Rob died, and has had many wonderful people come into her life. But she misses him every day.
She thought of him recently when she met a man at an overdose vigil who was living in a local facility and needed shoes, so Rising Above Addiction bought him a pair.
“A simple pair of shoes changed somebody’s life, for me that’s Rob, Rob would have loved that, to help this guy out in that way,” Lofink said.