Times West Virginian
It’s a heartbreaking story — newborns forced to live with the decisions of their mothers.
A study last year, The Associated Press reported this week, found that the number of U.S. babies born with signs of opiate drug withdrawal has tripled in a decade because of a surge in abuse of both legal and illegal narcotics. The problem is especially prevalent in West Virginia, Maine, Florida and parts of the Midwest.
Dr. David Chaffin, a maternal fetal medicine specialist at Marshall University Medical Center, participated in a multi-hospital study that showed at least 10 percent of all babies born in West Virginia are born with prescription narcotics in their systems.
Dr. Agnes Franz, pediatrician at the Monongahela Valley Association of Health Centers Fairmont Clinic, told the Times West Virginian in a story published last year about the seriousness of the problem.
“The babies can have tremors, can be irritable, high-pitch crying, increased muscle tone, hyperactive reflexes, seizures, vomiting, diarrhea,” Franz said. “They look very distressed.”
The recovery period can vary from a few days to weeks.
Sincere efforts are under way to address the issue — but expense is an obstacle.
Privately operated and financially independent Lily’s Place in Huntington is scheduled to open this fall to carefully wean infants off opiates and other drugs under medical supervision — but outside a neonatal intensive care. Lily’s Place also aims to go a step further, working with addicted mothers in hopes of sending infants home to safe environments.
“You can’t fix the baby,” says clinical adviser Sara Murray, “without fixing the family.”
According to the AP, donations come every day, and more than 250 “cuddlers” have volunteered to comfort newborn babies.
But can such a needed and helpful organization survive?
The founder of the Pediatric Interim Care Center, a partially state-funded program in Kent, Wash., and a model for the Huntington project, worries whether Lily’s Place will find the stable source of money it needs.
“It’s very hard to set up a program like mine. I’ve been to so many states, and they have not been able to put it together,” said Barbara Drennen, whose facility opened in the 1980s and needs up to $1.6 million a year to operate.
“If you don’t have continuous funding — and that’s a battle every year — you absolutely can’t do it,” Drennen told the AP. “You can get the clothes. You can get the donations. But that is not going to keep you going. You need big money to do that.”
The co-founders of Lily’s Place hope that Medicaid, foster care reimbursements and funds from private insurers will help them survive.
Murray, a registered nurse at Cabell-Huntington Hospital, says 28 percent of the babies born there test positive for opiate exposure. She has worked with Mary Brown, a hospital volunteer, to turn a donated medical office building into a 17-room haven for as many as 31 infants at a time. The plan is to have a team of 29 nurses and a supervising medical director on the site, just six blocks away from Cabell Huntington.
It makes financial sense to treat babies in a non-hospital setting when medically possible.
Drennen noted that intensive-care hospital treatment of drug-exposed babies costs $3,700 a day in Washington.
Brown, according to the AP, says Lily’s Place has a cooperative relationship with the state. Her education center will work with the state-run Birth to Three program, mental health agencies, church groups and others to heal damaged families.
Lily’s Place will also have a diaper distribution center, so staff will see the babies regularly for their first few years. There’s a food pantry across the street to help families who are hungry.
“Of course we have concerns” about long-term funding, Murray said. “Anybody that’s going to take on an endeavor like that will have concerns. But I really think it’s going to be OK. I absolutely believe the community will step up and stay involved.”
Of course, the ideal is for parents not to so unfairly harm their babies.
One mother in Marion County, who went by the fictitious name of “Tanya” in a Times West Virginian story, told how her daughter’s infant was admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit because she was suffering from withdrawal.
“The baby shakes constantly and when described by the nurse it is painful,” Tanya said. “The baby is suffering and was put on morphine to help control the withdrawal.”
Tanya said she can’t believe some mothers would put their own children through something so painful.
“I wish men and women would stop and look at themselves and the lives they are providing for themselves and their children,” Tanya said.
When they don’t, it’s an issue that must be addressed, and we trust the critical funding can be raised by caring organizations.