RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - A Richmond-area hospital system says the number of newborn babies already addicted to drugs like heroin has roughly doubled in recent years.
It's such an extensive problem that HCA hospitals are responding to meet the need, expanding programs and growing staff. It's a story grabbing headlines across the nation: America's growing heroin addiction.
They're babies that experience neurological symptoms, tremors, jitteriness, and sometimes even seizures in the first 48 hours of life. They spend their first days crying and often struggling to eat.
Lisa James, a Neonatal Clinical educator on the front lines of the problem, says in 2012 to 2013, and the years before that, they would see maybe one to two babies a year in the neonatal intensive-care unit (NICU) that were withdrawing.
"In 2014, we started to see more of a change in that and there were probably about 15 babies at that time between Johnston-Willis and Chippenham," said James. The following year, the numbers exploded again. "We had 25 of those babies, so we're seeing it kind of double every year, so it's very concerning."
"These babies stay for five days minimum, so we want to keep the mothers and babies together so they can learn how to care for the baby once they go home and try to keep the baby off of medication," said James.
"We have non-pharmacological treatments that we can provide for them to soothe them, to provide for them when they have those symptoms. Sometimes we do have to move them to the NICU unfortunately, to start them on medication."
James says by keeping the mother and babies in hospital rooms together after delivery, they see symptoms go away quicker, and that babies aren't in the hospital as long.
"By taking them out of the NICU, which is not a low stimulus environment, to the mother's room where the mother has her own space, she can keep the baby skin to skin, mother and her support people can learn how to soothe the baby," said James. "We end up with a lot better results with those babies."
Mothers also get treatment through a rehab program or clinic. The hospital works to get them enrolled in programs in Richmond or the surrounding area, providing support.
"And we educate. It's a lot of education," said James. "Education, education, education for them on how to care for the baby because the baby is going to be very difficult to care for in the first month with the crying, they can be very demanding, and we don't want the mother to get frustrated or the support
person to get frustrated. So you know ... it's a hard job."
HCA hospitals have a neonatal abstinence syndrome navigator program. A clinic or an OB can refer a mother and the family to the program.
"We will give them a tour of the hospital," said James. "We'll go over all of the policies, with regard to care of their babies and the program and how they can stay with their babies in the hospital. We'll go ahead and start teaching them. We provide a lot of education at that time, and it's just a way to connect with that family and make them feel comfortable that when they come in, our goal really is to support them."
James says there is always a concern that the family will get separated once a parent admits a drug problem.
"That is really one of the top things on their minds because we have to refer to CPS (child protection services), or any substance exposure," said James. "So, they think that automatically, the baby is going to be separated from them and that is not our intention at all. Our intention is to keep them together."
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