MINNEAPOLIS (KMSP) - Colleen Ronnei parallels her son Luke’s resilience to one of a dragon slayer.
“It's families like ours and it's families like yours. Nobody is immune to this,” the Chanhassen mother said.
Luke’s most powerful nemesis is one he kept quiet.
“Most of Luke’s closest friends didn’t know that he struggled with heroin,” she said.
The secret was one he kept hidden behind his bright green eyes, million dollar smile and zest for life.
“People have this idea of what somebody who's struggling with this drug looks like or behaves like, and a lot of them do very well and look really great.”
The addiction Colleen says is one Luke unwittingly slipped into.
“He thought he was smoking dabs,” she shared.
That was in 2012. Luke was only 18.
His inadvertent exposure came only two years after Colleen says Luke had his wisdom teeth pulled and developed a taste for opiates.
“He didn't heal properly and he was in a lot of pain, so unfortunately, Luke ended up on prescription opiates for more than a month.”
The grieving mother maintains Luke never struggled with pain pills. In fact, after Luke’s covert introduction to heroin, he went through rehab almost immediately.
“He reached out to his brother and said 'I'm in trouble,'” she said. “He said 'I don't want to be this person, these drugs have changed who I am.'"
Yet, the beast is one Luke battled to lead a normal life.
“Luke went to school, he went to Arizona State University, did really well, rushed into a fraternity, had a fabulous year, came back to Minnesota and relapsed,” his mother recalled.
Then on the cusp of combat, the day he was set to see his doctor for his next vivitrol injection, to get back on track to recovery, Colleen’s worst fear was realized.
“My husband and I went into his room and he had overdosed, 15 months ago: January 7th . Just 30 days shy of his 21st birthday.”
Colleen openly shares her heartache, if only to spare others from her pain.
“It is a slog and we miss Luke,” she confessed, “but more and more Lukes are going to be going if we don't work together to put an end to this epidemic.”
Luke’s story is not an uncommon one.
Carol Falkowski, one of Minnesota’s foremost experts on drug abuse trends, issued her annual Minneapolis/St. Paul Drug Abuse Report Monday.
The trends suggest from 2015 to 2016 opiate related overdose deaths rose 57.7 percent in Hennepin County (from 97 to 153) and in Ramsey County rose 32 percent (from 47 to 62).
“Most people who wind up addicted to heroin have a history of using prescription painkillers,” Falkowski confirmed.
Deaths involving fentanyl contributed to these increases.
“While buying illegal drugs has always been a crapshoot, it is really Russian roulette and anybody who’s buying illegal drugs has to face that possibility, [especially] if it has fentanyl in it,” Falkowski told FOX 9 Wednesday.
“It’s not slowing down, I think the numbers are bearing that,” Colleen added, “it breaks my heart because when Luke died I still remember thinking 'what did we miss?'”
Ronnei now sits on the Steve Rummler Foundation board and encourages families affected by the opiate crisis to reach out to her as they, too, contend with a monster she’s all too familiar with.
“There are a lot of dragon slayers out there, and they deserve to have big beautiful lives,” she said.