The opioid crisis affects tens thousands of people across North Carolina, and with more and more people struggling with opioid addiction, hospitals are trying to find ways to treat the drug’s littlest victims.
Chelsea Gordon makes the most of every moment with her daughter Brianna.
Delighting in playtime and cuddles, the pair shows no signs of the struggles both faced when Brianna was born. Chelsea started using pain pills at 13 and eventually moved on to heroin.
She didn’t know she was expecting a baby until six months into her pregnancy. When she found out, she says she tried to quit but couldn’t.
Her daughter Brianna spent the first month of her life in the hospital.
“It was horrible. It was very, very sad,” recalled Gordon.
Doctors across the Triangle say they’ve seen a big increase in babies born to mothers using opioids.
Dr. William Malcolm is the director of the high-risk infant follow-up clinic at Duke. “You look at North Carolina in general over the last ten years. There has been a 900 percent increase in babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome,” he said.
Neonatal abstinence syndrome or NAS occurs when babies go through withdrawal symptoms.
“They become very irritable and very fussy. They don’t feed very well — they’re hard to calm. They don’t sleep well,” Malcolm explained. “If they’re not treated it can become as extreme as having seizures.”
Hospitals monitor newborns for withdrawal signs for several days. If babies need medication, their stay becomes much longer.
“Many NICUs are at the extreme of capacity all the time, we don’t know where to put these babies,” said Malcolm adding, “It puts a big strain on the hospital. Not only is it for space in the nursery for caring for them but also for resources it takes.”
To reduce the time spent in the hospital, Duke developed a special program that allows some newborns with NAS to receive treatments at home.
“We actually discharge the baby home on medications treating their withdrawal and we see them very closely in our follow-up clinic,” said Malcolm.