Kentuckiana doctors finding new ways to help drug dependent babies
Pregnant and on drugs. It’s a battle for life when babies are born having been exposed to heroin, but doctors in Kentuckiana are working on new ways to give them a fighting chance.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It's the sound Kymbal Pruitt has anxiously been waiting to hear, her baby girl's heartbeat.
“The baby is approximately one pound 10 ounces, which is great,” said the nurse performing her ultrasound.
It’s a bright moment in what started out as a very scary pregnancy. With the hope of reaching others like her, Kymbal agreed to share her story with WDRB. Including the moment she hit rock bottom.
“Using, being pregnant, and it was like I can’t do this anymore, I just broke down in tears,” she explained.
Already a mother to her 3-year-old son Miguel, she claims she got into crack and heroin when she found herself in an abusive relationship but was introduced at a young age.
“My mom was an addict, my brothers were addicts, my cousins are addicts, there’s a lot of addiction in my family. I really couldn't get away from it,” said Kymbal.
But a chance meeting with a social worker brought her to Dr. Jonathan Weeks, the Medical Director of Norton Healthcare's Prenatal Addiction Program.
“In the last several years we've really seen an increase in the use of heroin among the women that we treat and I don't really see the problem going away in the next few years,” said Weeks.
Kymbal is now two months clean. She did it with the help of Dr. Weeks and a brand new service offered at Norton Women's and Kosair Children's Hospital called "New Vision for Expectant Mothers”.
“We’re helping to facilitate treatment for women who are suffering through substance abuse issues,” said Paige Ross with the New Vision service.
That means helping women detox during pregnancy, connecting them to a specialist like Dr. Weeks and getting them into a drug treatment program. Kymbal is able to continue her recovery at Volunteers of America Freedom House and live there with her son.
But what’s also different is that more of the medical community is recognizing opiate addiction as a chronic disease now.
“It’s not just a character flaw,” said Weeks. “It's a neurobiological change to the brain that occurs after extended exposure to these drugs. We understand that more as a medical community and are doing more to be empathetic and inviting.”
They want to be inviting because the sooner you can help the Mother, the sooner you can help the baby.
Data collected by Norton Healthcare over the last three years highlights the problem. In 2013, you start to see the increase in the number of babies born dependent on drugs. The numbers are higher in 2014 and there wasn’t much improvement in 2015. In October, more than 40 babies were born drug dependent at Norton Women’s and Kosair Children’s Hospital in St. Matthews and at Kosair Children’s hospital downtown.
Norton Women’s and Kosair Children’s Hospital built a NICU specifically designed to treat babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome or NAS. It’s a technical term for drug dependent.
“We've built an actual NAS unit, to give the baby the type of environment they need to help with symptoms,” explained Neonatal Nurse Practitioner Kris Cooper.
The NICU environment includes low lighting, motion seats to soothe these often irritable babies and doors that close to keep the room quiet. Babies are released from the NAS unit once they are off the medications used to wean them off their drug dependency.
“The protocol that we use here has decreased the length of stay from about 30-42 days to about 25 days,” said Cooper.
The reality is babies born drug dependent is costing American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimates the average hospital charge nationwide for a drug dependent baby is between $39,000 and $53,000 per child. About 78 percent of those hospital stays are covered by Medicaid.
“I really think we need to focus a lot more on prevention. I really think people should get help before they start having families,” said Dr. Weeks.
While Norton's New Vision Service has only been around for a few short months, it’s already in high demand. Everyone in Dr. Weeks’ office is pulling for Kymbal, hoping she will prove to be one of the first success stories.
She says her goal is simple.
“Just to be able to take care of my family and live a sober, clean, happy life,” Kymbal said.
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