Babies born with opiate addiction growing epidemic

Every hour in this country a baby is born addicted to opiates - painkillers like Percocet and Vicodin. They are the innocent victims of a growing epidemic.

Babies born addicted to opiates will spend the first days to weeks of their lives going through withdrawal.

Inside the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Holy Redeemer Hospital, Nurse Jackie McCollum says they always have at least one newborn addicted to opiates.

"At one point I think we had seven babies," said McCollum.

A video shows a 1-day-old baby going through withdrawal.

Nurses say the high-pitched cry and tense body are telltale signs.

"It's their nervous system that does it," said McCollum.

McCollum shared the long list of other symptoms with Action News that includes tremors, extreme irritability, difficulty feeding and sleeping.

It's called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.

"(Are the babies in pain?) I would have to say, 'yes,' " said McCollum.

Action News spoke with one mother who didn't want to be identified. We'll call her Anne.

"It was so painful to watch knowing that I did that to her," said Anne.

She's clean now, but years ago she started taking Percocet that was prescribed to her for migraines.

At first it just made her drowsy.

"But one day a switch just flipped, like that," said Anne.

She says she knew then she was hooked. Her prescription wasn't enough so the career woman and wife started buying more pills on the street.

"It wasn't a moral dilemma for me. It was a dependency, and I couldn't stop," said Anne.

Then Anne became pregnant.

Neonatologist Dr. Joan Donahue says if a woman is physically addicted to painkillers, stopping the drugs when pregnant can be more harmful to the baby.

They can suffer a seizure in utero.

Anne stayed on Percocet, but told no one. When her baby girl was born, it was obvious, the baby started going through withdrawal.

"Muscle pains, spasms, she was very irritable, she cried a lot, she was throwing up," said Anne.

The treatment is to give the babies morphine and slowly wean them off opiates. Anne's baby spent five weeks in the NICU.

"It's upsetting on many levels," said Dr. Donahue.

Dr. Donahue says while some mothers are getting the drugs on the street, many have prescriptions and don't realize the potential consequences of taking painkillers long-term. There's also concern for when babies are weaned and ready to go home.

"If you were suffering an addiction, and you were taking a newborn home and trying to get on your feet, it is very, very difficult," said Dr. Donahue.

She says addicts need more help getting clean.

It was a long road for Anne, but she is now four years drug free.

Her baby girl is 5 years old, healthy and happy.

"I feel blessed beyond words. I feel so blessed," said Anne.
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