A 26-year-old Vassalboro man who was mentally disabled died Thursday after a fire broke out in his Hussey Hill Road home.

His mother, meanwhile, said in an interview that the circumstances surrounding her son’s death highlight both the challenges facing families with mentally disabled loved-ones and deficiencies in the state’s caregiver system, where she thinks workers are underpaid and coverage is in short supply.

Nicholas Blaschke, 26, was alone in the house when fire and smoke broke out, according to Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

Nicholas Blaschke

Investigators said they believe the blaze started around 5:40 p.m. when a toaster malfunctioned in the kitchen of the one-story house at 605 Hussey Hill Road. Blaschke lived in the house with his mother, Kathleen Cote.

Cote said in an interview Friday that Blaschke was her “forever boy,” as he had been diagnosed with moderate mental disability.

“It was like he was 7 or 8 years old; I called him my Sasquatch,” Cote said. “He was very sweet. He was my boy, even though he was a man. There are no words for parents of kids with special needs. We do what we can to make a life, and to make sure they’re safe. You can’t be there all the time.”

Cote, who said she has an older son as well, said she came home from work Thursday evening to find the house full of smoke, and “I think he was already gone by the time paramedics got there.”

 

FIRE RESPONSE

Cote initially attempted to pull Blaschke from the smoke-filled house but couldn’t.

Vassalboro Fire Chief Walker Thompson said that he, Maine State Police Lt. Scott Ireland and another local firefighter were the first to respond and they went inside the house to get Blaschke. Ireland said in an interview that he was on his way home — which is about 2 to 3 miles away — when he heard the call and headed to the scene.

The house was filled with smoke and fire, and Blaschke was unconscious in the kitchen area, Thompson said.

The fact that Ireland happened to be there as well “was a significant help,” Thompson said, because “without him, it would have been very difficult with the situation.”

The three men pulled Blaschke from the burning home and immediately started CPR as the first fire engines arrived and began attacking the blaze. Thompson said firefighters, which included a tanker and crew from Winslow and some 30 responders, were able to douse the fire fairly quickly.

Responders, however, were unable to revive Blaschke with cardiopulmonary resuscitation efforts.

Ireland was treated for smoke inhalation at the scene, and Thompson and two other firefighters were evaluated.

Thompson said the fire was mostly contained to the kitchen area but did spread into the roof trusses as well.

“We are very thankful law enforcement and fire agencies worked well together,” Thompson said. “And we are thankful — other than the gentleman who passed — that there were no other injuries.”

Ireland said rescue officials continued CPR on Blaschke for up to an hour after the initial efforts by him and the firefighters first on scene.

“It was a lot of great effort. We’re lucky to have a great fire department and we’re very proud of them,” Ireland said. He added on efforts to revive Blaschke: “We tried our best but unfortunately we were not successful. My heart goes out to the family; that’s very tough.”

 

HE ‘LOVED EVERYBODY’

Less than 24 hours after the deadly incident, Cote wanted people to know that her son loved everyone.

Cote said her son would exhibit “selective mutism,” in that he almost wouldn’t talk to anyone but her.

“He’d talk my ear off, but barely talked to anyone else,” she said. “When he really liked someone, he’d always pat their back. He had a huge sense of humor — he’s funny as all-get-out.”

Blaschke’s interests included Thomas the Tank Engine, My Little Pony and many cartoons, movies and books, as evidenced by his large collection of DVDs and VHS tapes, Cote said.

“Iwant people to know that Nicholas, he had no capability to emote, to show emotion or express his feelings,” Cote said. “He just didn’t have that capability. I want everyone in his life to know that he adored and loved everybody in his life.”

Even as Cote holds onto those memories of her son, she is also anguished by problems with the state’s caregiver network. Cote said she had been having difficulty since early January getting in-home caregiver coverage for her son so that she could work. She praises the “wonderful people” who had previously provided caregiver supervision to her son, but that coverage had lapsed over the last month.

“We were having problems with Nicholas going to a day program. I had somebody at the end of the year for a couple of weeks, but they got offered another job, and then we had somebody else but she was only there for a few days,” Cote said. “We had been waiting since the beginning of January. From everything I’ve heard and experienced, the agencies of the state do not pay these people what they deserve for taking care of our special needs kids. They do not make it livable for these people to remain at the job.”

Asked to comment on those issues raised by Cote, Jackie Farwell, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, noted that officials had convened the Long-Term Services and Supports Advisory Group, whose recent report described ways to strengthen this system.

“Ensuring a high-quality system of services for adults with intellectual disabilities, and the workforce to support it, is a major focus of the Department,” Farwell said via email on Friday. She added: “We are also continuing to support workforce training, recruitment, and retention by streamlining training curriculum and improving credentialing, hiring a health care workforce coordinator who will identify the most pressing shortages and develop strategies with the private sector to address them, and reviewing how DHHS programs can coordinate with those of the Department of Labor.”

About 3,100 Mainers live in group homes for the intellectually disabled through a Medicaid program and an additional 2,200 people get in-home care, according to state statistics.

Last month, advocates for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities pressed lawmakers to approve more than $60 million in annual funding. Their aim is to eliminate a nearly 2,000-deep waiting list for certain Medicaid services, in an effort to ease a workforce shortage at group homes and for other adult services that include in-home supports, day programs and other programs.

While Cote said her son was relatively self-sufficient and would generally be fine when left at home alone for the day, caregiver supervision helping teach life skills were still important.

“He had gotten stuff stuck in the toaster before,” Cote said. “It was just a fluke thing. This time, it went really bad. It’s one thing to, as a parent, go over safety stuff, but they can’t grasp and retain that information.”

“It takes a special kind of people to care for kids like mine,” Cote said. “They should be paid what they’re worth.”

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