SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - The growing opioid epidemic touches every state, and it's a growing problem in Chatham County, Georgia. The youngest victims are babies born addicted to drugs.
They're small, they're precious, and the neonatal intensive care unit – or NICU – at Memorial Health sees a growing number of babies born with withdrawal symptoms following exposure to drugs.
Dr. Brad Buckler is the medical director of Memorial's NICU.
"We're probably looking at probably somewhere between 50 and 75 babies that we take care of on a yearly basis that would have what we call neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS)," Dr. Buckler said.
NAS applies to babies born addicted to drugs. The numbers are on the rise nationwide. According to the Georgia Department of Health, rural communities have a higher rate of NAS births. Southeast Georgia lit up the chart when they analyzed 2016 documents. Chatham County and Cobb County had the highest numbers of confirmed NAS cases in 2016. Buckler said the newborns' conditions can be heartbreaking.
"If they are withdrawing from drugs, the problems that they have is maintaining their temperature and tolerating their feeds. Their gastrointestinal tract is upset so they can have diarrhea. They can have sneezing. They can have problems maintaining their normal environment. They came into that situation through no fault of their own and so that is very difficult to take care of. From my standpoint, the one thing that we do not do is we don't judge the moms in those situations," Buckler said.
Keep in mind, the mothers of these fragile children are often on prescription painkillers, but other times they're using illegal drugs. In October of 2017, WTOC showed you body camera video of Savannah Police Sgt. Alicia McLemore administering Narcan to a pregnant woman who overdosed on drugs.
The topic of mothers and drug-addicted babies is so sensitive, that WTOC reached out to Memorial Health and several other organizations and nonprofits to request an interview with a mother of a NAS baby, more than 20 women declined.
WTOC was able to speak with a woman who treats many mothers struggling with drug addiction. Dr. Kris Falcon works at the Assisted Recovery Center of Georgia and said the center is seeing an increased number of young mothers addicted to drugs.
"As they discuss that they not only have a child but that they used [drugs] while they were carrying that child in the womb. Guilt, shame, depression kicks in where they want to shut down and not even discuss the topic," Falcon said.
Though for some mothers, a baby is all the motivation they need to commit to getting help.
"We see some mothers who genuinely are concerned about their child in their womb and they want their child to come out a great birth weight and able to have the longevity of happiness as they grow up," Falcon said.
Buckler said neonatal abstinence syndrome is preventable and that requires deliberate care.
"We want to take care of moms prior to them having NAS, so that we can get them help, like I said before they even get pregnant so that once they become pregnant there is not a drug problem whether it be prescription drugs or illicit drugs," Buckler said.
In addition to getting the newborn the best medical care possible, treatment of the mother is often a long road to recovery.
"We're trying to heal them emotionally, psychologically, but we also have to teach them how to be open, honest and direct with family members and their children," Falcon said.
You may be wondering if there is anything you can do to help. Doctors at Memorial said they need more volunteers to hold and rock the babies so they can experience a loving touch while family members are at work.
Memorial officials said their primary concern is the health and wellness of the child and that authorities decide whether a state agency needs to get involved depending on the level of health complications the child suffers from drugs. While some women are on low-level drugs for pain and under the care of a physician, others are using illegal drugs and in fact, the child may be turned over to a family member or state agency better suited to take care of the child.
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