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Tiniest victims of Ohio's painkiller epidemic

4:07 PM, Aug 1, 2012   |    comments
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CLEVELAND --  They are the tiniest victims in a drug epidemic, likened to a tidal wave.

Once, every hour in the U.S. a baby is born addicted to the painkillers that swallowed up its mother.

The problem is so bad, some hospitals across the U.S. are reporting up to half the newborns in their neonatal intensive care units are going through withdrawal.

As Channel 3's Senior Health Correspondent Monica Robins found out, Northeast Ohio has been swept up in this heartbreaking trend as well.

Related story: Volunteers offer loving arms to babies battling addiction 

MetroHealth Medical Center's NICU is a place where the promise of hope, and heartbreak sometimes collide. The tiniest patients come here to fight. Their chances of surviving and thriving are made better by the level of care they receive.

On the first day of our visit, even the most seasoned NICU nurses are feeling the strain.

"As of today, we are extremely busy," Nurse Tracey Galvin said.

Galvin has been a registered nurse for 15 years. Not every nurse is cut out for the stress of working in a NICU. Galvin is, but the strain is showing today. "We have a little baby who just needs some extra attention, and we can't give that attention today," Galvin tells us.

The baby Galvin is talking about, was born to a mother battling a prescription pill addiction. As a result, the baby was born addicted too. Some babies handle it relatively well. Others struggle, just like their grownup counterparts.

Diarrhea, stomach pain, rigid muscles and tremors are part of the withdrawal side effects. These babies are hard to soothe, and will often arch their backs inward. Methadone is sometimes used to help them cope. But eventually they will have to be weaned off that too.

Dr. Jennifer Bailit is an OB/GYN at MetroHealth Medical Center. When she began her career, babies born addicted to prescription drugs were rare. Now Dr. Bailit says MetroHealth is seeing about 100 a year. And she says the number has doubled in the past few years.

The mothers of these babies, she says, are young and come from all walks of life.

"People who are very much upper middle class, people who have sort of been raised on the streets and everything in between. Strikingly many of them are working and have jobs. These are not dysfunctional people completely. they are very much a part of our fabric of society," Bailit says.

It's easy to get angry at the mothers. But Dr. Bailit says often they were prescribed painkillers for an accident or injury, and get hooked. But there are those, too, who try them on a whim and become addicted.

However they get hooked, Doctor Bailit says when their pill supplies dry up, many turn to heroin. "From my understanding, there is the same kind of euphoria. Heroin is a stronger sensation of a familiar feeling," Bailit explains. 

We met Baby Kai during our visit. About 8 weeks old, he has struggled with his withdrawal and receives methadone. But Kai seems to have finally turned the corner. But he still gets very irritable. NICU nurses say they can tell which babies are going through withdrawal, just by the sound of their cry.

"Sometimes it can start as a little whimper. And it escalates and it's very desperate. Like they want attention. I can hear one right now," Galvin says.

On our last visit to the NICU we met Kai's mother. She agreed to tell her story, as long as we didn't show her face.

"Paula" is a recovering heroin addict. She was already on methadone when she became pregnant with Kai. Methadone is a drug often used to help keep addicts stable and curb their drug cravings. But it can pass through in utero, and cause babies to become dependent too. Once born their withdrawal can be severe.

"Paula" becomes emotional as she explains what it has been like to watch Kai battle his symptoms. "There are no words to describe your baby screaming and writhing in pain, and knowing that it's all because of you," "Paula" tells us.

"We try to get the moms off heroin and off pills when they are pregnant and on to methadone. The reason for that is is that if you try to go cold turkey during pregnancy, the baby can die," according to Dr. Bailit.

Kai will go home soon. It will be a day of mixed emotions on the floor.

"The longer that they're here, the more attached we get. For sure. You put your heart and soul into caring for these babies and they do make an impact on your life," Galvin says, knowing that she and her colleagues have done all they can do. It's now up to the families.

As for "Paula," she is focused on staying sober. She tells us her family is behind her, offering support and love. And she brings up "church" several times in our conversation. She credits their love and prayers for helping her stay strong.

But "Paula" knows many people may have little sympathy for her.  She accepts that, and admits for her, focus and energy must be directed elsewhere. Because that's what's best for Kai. "There is a whole of of shame involved. But the best thing for me is to push those feelings aside because he needs me right now," "Paula" says.

The long term effects of this addiction in newborns, aren't clear, because the phenomenon is still relatively new. Some research indicates these babies may be at greater risk for developmental challenges like ADHD.

It's up to the Department for Children and Family Services to determine whether an infant can go home with its mother or not.  The mother's sobriety, and home life play a huge factor in that decision.

There is a way you can help these babies. They require a lot of holding and soothing.  The nurses, and volunteers hold them as often as possible, but sometimes that is not enough.

Nurses told us they have a need for new infant swings, and vibrating bouncy seats. They're also in need of soothing musical mobiles, and CD players.

Channel 3 has donated $1,000 to go toward purchasing these items.

If you would like to donate as well, you can do so through the MetroHealth Foundation. Kate Brown is the contact, and can be reached at 216-778-7853.

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