HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - They’re the tiniest and most innocent victims of the heroin addiction crisis but it doesn’t spare them their suffering.
They cry relentlessly at a disturbing pitch and can’t sleep. Their muscles get so tense their bodies feel hard. They suck hungrily but lack coordination to successfully feed. Or they lack an appetite. They sweat, tremble, vomit and suffer diarrhea. Some claw at their faces.
It’s because they were born drug-dependent and are suffering the painful process of withdrawal. “It’s very sad,” says Dr. Christiana Oji-Mmuo, who cares for them at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital. “You would have to see a baby in this condition to understand.”
As the heroin and painkiller addiction epidemic gripping Pennsylvania and the whole country worsens, the number of babies born drug dependent has surged.
Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa. saw two or three drug-dependent babies annually when Dr. Lauren Johnson-Robbins began working there 17 years ago. Now Geisinger cares for about twice that many per month between its neonatal intensive care unit in Danville and the NICU at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre.
Penn State Children’s Hospital is averaging about 20 per year, although it had cared for 18 through last June, with the final 2016 number not yet available, says Oji-Mmuo.
PinnacleHealth System’s Harrisburg Hospital also sees about 20 per year. That’s less than a few years ago, but only because a hospital that used to transfer drug dependent babies to Harrisburg Hospital equipped itself to care for them. “Now everybody is facing it and trying to deal with it one way or another,” says Dr. Manny Peregrino, a neonatologist involved with their care.
The babies suffer from neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS, which results from exposure to opioid drugs while in the womb. An estimated 1 in 200 babies in the United States are born dependent on an opioid drug. More than half end up in a NICU, which care for unusually sick babies.
In 2015, 2,691 babies received NICU care in Pennsylvania as the result of a mother’s substance abuse, according to the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council. That’s up from 788 in 2000, or a 242 percent increase in 15 years.
Nearly all babies born to opioid-addicted moms suffer withdrawal. The severity varies. About 60 percent need an opioid such as morphine or methadone to ease them through withdrawal. These babies typically spend about 25 days in the hospital.
Often, the only way to calm them is to hold them for long periods - so long that many hospitals enlist volunteer “cuddlers.” ”It really is a whole village. Everybody pitches in,” Peregrino says.
Giving medications to newborns can lead to other problems, so the preference is to get them through withdrawal without it. A scale based on their symptoms is used to determine which ones need medication. In cases where withdrawal isn’t so severe, symptoms can be managed by keeping the baby away from noise and bright light, cuddling them, and using devices such as mechanical swings to sooth them.
Logan Keck of Carlisle feared the worst upon learning what her baby might face. The 23-year-old became addicted to heroin several years ago. She says it was prominent in her circle of high school classmates, and she became “desensitized” to the danger, figuring it couldn’t be as bad as some claimed.
Keck has been in recovery for more than two years with the help of methadone, a prescription drug used to prevent withdrawal and craving. She was a few weeks away from being fully tapered off methadone when Keck learned she was pregnant.
She was told stopping methadone during pregnancy would put her at risk of miscarriage. Keck further learned her baby might be born addicted. She gave birth on Feb. 1 at Holy Spirit-Geisinger in Cumberland County.
Her baby had difficulty latching on during breastfeeding and vomited milk into her lungs, but seemed fine otherwise. Keck expected she and her baby would go home soon after delivery.
But after a few days, withdrawal became obvious. Keck knows how withdrawal feels. “That’s when it really hit home for me - seeing her feel it,” she says.
Then she was hit again: she was discharged, but her baby remains in the NICU, possibly for several more weeks.
The opioid addiction epidemic affects people of all backgrounds and regions - rich, poor, urban, suburban. It’s prevalent in economically-stressed areas, including many of Pennsylvania’s rural counties.
Geisinger has found a bit of brightness within the 30-plus rural counties it serves. Some of the region’s doctors realized there was little access to methodone, which is dispensed from clinics usually located in more populated areas. That meant pregnant rural women lacked access to a legal drug that could keep them away from the risks of street drugs while also getting them onto the road to recovery. So the doctors became licensed to prescribe buprenorphine, another drug that staves off withdrawal and cravings for opioids. As a result, the majority of mothers of NAS babies at Geisinger have been taking buprenorphine during pregnancy, according to Johnson-Robbins.
Geisinger doctors have been pleased to find that buprenorphine, while it does cause NAS, withdrawal isn’t as severe as with methadone. It also impacts another major concern surrounding NAS babies: that the mother will continue to struggle with addiction and live a lifestyle that will prevent her from properly caring for her baby. Most Geisinger moms, being in recovery for a while, are better-equipped to care for their baby.
Still, there’s great concern about what happens to NAS babies after they leave the hospital. The mother might go back to heroin and become unable to properly care for her baby - there have been many news reports of addicted parents or fathers who neglected or otherwise hurt their babies, including a Pennsylvania woman who rolled over and suffocated her baby while high on opioids and other drugs. The mother might lack adequate housing or other means of having a stable home. There might be criminal activity in the home.
Delaware County woman says she didn’t know their whereabouts until news reports of their hospitalizations for alleged severe abuse.
“We are sending children out into compromised environments,” says Dr. Lori Frasier, who leads the division of child abuse pediatrics at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital. Those babies often return to the hospital as victims of abuse or neglect, Frasier says.
Another cause for worry is the fact that NAS babies can remain unusually fussy after leaving the hospital, potentially putting extra stress on a parent already dealing with the stress of addiction. “We know that crying, fussy babies can be triggers for abuse,” Frasier says.
Cathleen Palm, founder of the Pennsylvania-based Center for Children’s Justice, said much more needs to done to provide help for mothers of NAS babies, and to monitor and protect the babies. “We have really been trying to get policy makers to understand the nuances,” she says.
Keck goes to Holy Spirit-Geisinger daily to breastfeed and hold her baby for one to two hours. Her time is limited by distance and the fact the baby’s father needs their only car for work. Looking forward, Keck says she’s in a stable relationship with the baby’s father, who is not an addict and accompanies her to the hospital. They have family support, and a Holy Spirit program will provide additional help.
Ultimately, Keck’s pregnancy and motherhood have taught her things that might have inspired her to make a different choice regarding heroin, including the fact it caused her newborn to suffer and forced her to go home without her baby. She agreed to be interviewed out of desire to get others to think and talk about such realities. “I want people to understand it’s something that’s not pretty,” Keck said. “It’s something that’s important to talk about.”
Information from: Pennlive.com, https://www.pennlive.com
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