By Dr. Mallika Marshall

LOWELL (CBS) — For many people, the opioid addiction begins with prescription pain pills.

It’s a story one local dad knows too well. After losing his son to an overdose he is now advocating for change — in the operating room.

Related: Opioid Addiction Recovery Resources

“You can see his bright, clear eyes and his warm smile. And really healthy and happy, really hopeful,” said Dr. James Baker describing his son, Max, after he shook his addiction to heroin.

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Max Baker (Photo Courtesy: Baker Family)

“He said once the pills started it took less than a year to transition to heroin and he was an addict by 17,” Dr. Baker told WBZ-TV.

With the relentless urging of his dad, Max finally got help and got clean.

“He got his life back. It was just absolutely wonderful.”

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Dr. James Baker (WBZ-TV)

Then the unexpected: only a year after Max started treatment, he was in a bad car crash and needed surgery on his fractured hand. Max was sedated with a mix of drugs that included opioids.

“We’re learning as we go along… there are alternatives to IV, intravenous fentanyl, that could have been used,” said Dr. Baker.

Max then got prescription painkillers during recovery.

“I told him ‘Hey, this is really dangerous. You know where this can lead.’ ‘I know Dad, I’m not going to do that'” Dr. Baker said his son knew the risks and was convinced he wouldn’t go down that road.

One month later, Max overdosed and died at the age of 23.

At Lowell General Hospital, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Scott Sigman is leading the way in a new type of post-surgery pain management.

“We were one of the very first hospitals in the Commonwealth and across the country to come together and develop an opioid-sparing strategy for surgery,” explained Dr. Sigman.

During surgery, Dr. Sigman is now using the non-narcotic drug Exparel.

“It gets injected at the time of the surgery and it can provide anywhere from 24-72 hour pain relief,” he said.

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Exparel (WBZ-TV)

The whole idea is to lower a patient’s risk of getting addicted to opioid pain relief by minimizing their exposure post-surgery.

Just five hours after Cathy Albano’s total knee replacement she was up and walking around the hospital.

“I don’t have any pain. Like I said, I can lift it,” Cathy said.

While she didn’t need the pain pills during her stay at Lowell General, Cathy did use a few pills to help her sleep at night once she returned home.

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Cathy Albano recovering from surgery (WBZ-TV)

Dr. Sigman is seeing similar success with all types of surgeries.

“We have looked at the last 30 ACL’s that I’ve done. The average number of pain pills that they’ve taken post-operatively is 4 pain pills,” said Dr. Sigman. “We feel very confident right now, that this is something we need to do.”

Exparel does cost more than traditional opioid treatments and other non-narcotic medications but Dr. Sigman is convinced it’s worth paying that money up-front instead of risking the financial and social cost of drug addiction later on.

This is the seventh piece in a series of WBZ-TV reports on confronting the opioid crisis in Massachusetts.

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