Crack babies are on the wane, and in the 21st century, the new hotness is prescription drug abuse and having babies born already addicted to prescription drugs. At the newborn intensive care unit in East Tennessee Children’s Hospital in Knoxville alone, almost half the babies are born exposed to some sort of prescription drug that babies shouldn’t be taking.
While prescription drug abuse is a problem in nearly every neighborhood in America, it is particularly epidemic in Tennessee, which ranks among the top states in the overuse of prescription pain medications.
A recent Tennessee health department survey found that about a third of pregnant women in state treatment programs are addicted to prescription pain meds. As a result, the number of babies born with NAS at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital doubled from 2010 to 2011.
This epidemic is tearing apart families in eastern Tennessee, according to Department of Children’s Services Attorney Susan Kovac.
“In Knox County, we’re drowning,” she said. “We’ve seen the number of children in foster care increase by almost 50% over the last few years, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg because we’re trying to keep the children out of foster care. We’ve got lots and lots of relatives who are raising drug-exposed infants.”
“We come and talk to the mom and try to find out, what’s the level of her abuse, what’s the level of her addiction, what can we do to get her clean so that she can be in a position to take care of her baby,” Kovac explained.
Since the epidemic is relatively new, there is no national protocol on how to treat NAS. East Tennessee Children’s Hospital focuses its treatment on two areas: environmental and medicinal. Last year, the hospital created a wing of private rooms that is quieter, darker and easier to control for the massive influx of babies suffering from drug withdrawal. The hospital also trains volunteers, called cuddlers, to hold and comfort the babies.
Bob Woodruff, a retired marketing professor and grandfather, spends six hours a week giving these babies a little extra love.
“It’s tremendously rewarding to take a stressed baby and work with that baby until that baby is feeling better or sleeping,” Woodruff said. “It also makes the job of the nurses a lot easier. It’s a lot easier for them to come into a room and deal with a calm baby, rather than a crying baby. So I feel like I’m really helping the nurses, as well as helping the babies.”