Tiniest patients face huge battle: drug addiction

By: Allison Kropff Email
By: Allison Kropff Email

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - It's the other face of drug addiction: Newborns. They come into the world fighting for their lives.
It's a problem that reaches far beyond hospital doors.

Of the 60 babies in NICU care here at Children's Hospital, 21 were born, addicted to drugs. Now, they're suffering from withdrawals. They're the silent victims in the growing drug problem, here in East Tennessee.

19:49 (Carla) "They claw at their faces, they're frantic, they have a very fearful is the best way we can describe it, look in their eyes, just a fearful look in their eyes," says Carla Saunders, a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner at Children's Hospital.

Within hours, newborns deal with the painful side effects of drug addiction.

"Hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, cocaine, crack roxy, you name it, we've seen it," says Saunders.

A year ago, doctors would have given these babies methadone until they were stable, then sent them home with the drug to continue treatment.

"Having the parents or caregivers take to use themselves or sell to buy other drugs," says Terry King, a pharmacist at Children's Hospital.

Now, under the Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Project, doctors wean with morphine.

"We believe that we might be able to achieve a quicker wean off, it would take a shorter time to get the results," says King.

Fewer days in the hospital. The average stay, a month. But some babies have been here for three months.

"It's not right to spend that much of your life in a newborn nursery needlessly," says Saunders.

This isn't just a newborn problem, Saunders says these babies face challenges in the future.

"Children have impulse control issues. They have behavioral issues. They have ADD type issues in Kindergarten and elementary school."

The Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Project created here at Children's Hospital is not just getting statewide attention, hospitals across the country are interested. The hope is better outcomes and less suffering for these innocent newborns.

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