COMMUNITY CRISIS: The most vulnerable victims

LANSING, Mich (WLNS) – When most babies enter the world the labor and delivery unit at Henry Ford Allegiance Hospital in Jackson, it’s a joyous occasion.

But for babies born to mothers addicted to drugs, it’s anything but.

Neonatal Nurse Practicioner Nadine Zinn says “they can be very irritable difficult to sooth, high pitched cries-tremors, difficulty eating. They can’t suck-swallow so they can lose weight.”

It’s a heartbreaking issue growing faster than the tiny newborns themselves.

Mothers taking pills like Tylenol with codeine, Norco and Vicodin or using methadone or heroin while pregnant, having babies who spend their first days on this earth detoxing from drugs.

As the Department Manager in the Neonatal ICU at Sparrow Hospital, Sarah Collins sees these babies almost every day.

She says “it’s a painful experience for them in a way when they are withdrawing.”

Collins says its hard to watch brand new bodies adjust to life without the drugs they were exposed to while in their mothers womb.

“(They do) a lot of crying, they kind of do like a jittery shake kind of thing they will sneeze they will yawn a lot. Sometimes their color is a little bit different as far as when you get cold and you look kind of “purplely.” There’s sweating, loose stools so they get diaper rash. Things like that. It’s just uncomfortable for them.”

Dr. Padmani Karna, a Neonatalogist at Sparrow Hospital says ironically, in severe cases it’s more drugs that help the babies get through.

“It’s basically the opioid again. We treat them with either the morphine or methadone those are the two most commonly used medications.”

While those calm their “significant symptoms” babies also have to be weaned off of that medication before they can go home.

So while a healthy baby may stay in the hospital for 2-3 days after birth, babies suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome or NAS can undergo treatment for more than a month.

Dr. Karna says “that occupies the beds in the hospital, nursing care, the whole medical team has to be tuned up for that.”

It’s an issue putting strain on much more than just tiny hearts.

It’s one forcing hospitals everywhere to adjust by educating staff and bringing in more people to help.

Collins says “We do a lot of holding those babies. You’ll see the nurses with those babies in their arms a lot just because they do really well with the movement and being held close they really like that kind of contact.”

Dr. Karna adds “we actually have volunteers who can also what we call cuddlers. They come and hold these babies and try to keep them calm.”

But while caring for the babies is number 1, Collins says it’s also about supporting their families.

“A lot of these moms are in a treatment program and trying their very best, so it’s about getting them involved and helping them through it and help support the baby too.”

According to Neonatal Nurse Practicioner Nadine Zinn, this isn’t ‘just a “street drug” or “junkie” thing.

While heroin cases are certainly a factor, she says many of these addictions start with legal prescription drugs.

“Either they had a bad accident or bad surgery, something like that, that they started on opiates that way.”

But no matter what the circumstances are when a baby is born with symptoms of drug withdrawal hospitals are required by law to report it to Children’s Protective Services.

Colin Parks, the State Manager for CPS says the number of babies born exposed to opioids is growing at an alarming rate.

“It is a strain, it’s a struggle, it’s not getting easier.”

But CPS doesn’t automatically take babies born with withdrawal symptoms away from their parents. In fact, 95% of those kids go home with their parents or another family member.

CPS then works with those families to make sure the babies get the care they need.

Parks says “The goal always is to keep a family together. If a family does get separated because of risk then the goal is to try and get them back together as soon as possible.”

But even if a family is able to turn things around; their traumatic entry into this world can have lasting affects on these babies.

Dr. Karna says “there are some issues with behavior and ADHA some neurological symptoms.”

She believes more needs to happen at the state and community level to stop addiction before it starts.

“The effort needs to be at much larger scale rather than trying to treat the babies at the end.”

In the meantime, the doctors and nurses who work in Special Care Nurseries and NICU’s will continue to do the best they can to help the most innocent victims caught up in the middle of this opioid addiction epidemic.

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