CLEVELAND– It’s a sound that breaks your heart: Babies who cry in MetroHealth’s NICU, the neonatal intensive care unit where the sickest newborns are brought for care.
They cry for many reasons, but some cry because they were born addicted to heroin.
“What I know about withdrawal, it is extremely uncomfortable,” said Dr. Deepak Kumar, one of the neonatologists who do the heroic work every day trying to wean these babies from their addictions.
“The dependence, so to speak, starts in the womb,” Dr. Kumar said. “They are difficult to control. They are frantic.”
The babies are born addicted because their mothers were addicted.
And, while by law MetroHealth Medical Center can’t say which babies are addicted, the overall numbers reflect that the heroin/opiate pill epidemic sweeping Ohio is out of control.
In 2001, Metro reported seeing less than ten pregnant moms who had a heroin or opiate addiction.
By 2008, that number was 22.
In 2011, it tripled again to 66.
And, last year, Metro saw 98 pregnant moms with those addictions.
Dr. Jennifer Bailit, who runs Metro’s Women & Children Patient Care Unit, calls the numbers an “explosion” and said the problems are widespread.
“We see a continuum, from moms who are on pills, and maybe that’s gotten away from them, to women who’ve graduated from pills and are on IV use of heroin,” she said.
Dr. Bailit said the knowledge that their babies are heroin-dependent sometimes has a profound impact.
“Sometimes, pregnant women who are addicted or dependent really have sort of a wake-up moment,” she said. “And say ‘this is not who I want to be; this is not the mother I want to be.'”
Dr. Bailit said Metro stresses, “We can’t fix the past, but we’re going to help you have a bright future.”
A leading national pain expert, Dr. Ed Covington at the Cleveland Clinic, said the problem has exploded in large part because doctors have over-prescribed opiates: the painkillers that are heroin’s legal cousins that have names such as Oxycodone and Oxycontin.
Dr. Covington said some research done a generation ago suggested that people who took opiates for pain were less likely to get addicted than those who used heroin for fun.
That turned out to be dead wrong.
“At national medical meetings, we were being told that, if our patients were still in pain, it was because of our own cowardice, that we were just too timid to use the doses of opioids required to make folks comfortable,” Dr. Covington said.
“I really believe American physicians have been, not uneducated, but mal-educated,” he said, before adding, “We’ve been fed a pack of lies.”
The doctors at Metro said they have noticed an increase in the number of pregnant moms who started out addicted to pills.
And heroin addictions are one of the hardest addictions to beat, in part, because withdrawal can be so painful, like the worst flu you’ve ever had, that addicts crave another hit just to get through the day.
In the Metro NICU, doctors “score” babies for how addicted they are, then actually give the infants smaller and smaller amounts of opiates, trying to wean them off their addictions as gently as possible.
“Every day is different,” Dr. Kumar said. “We win some and we lose some.”
They win more than they lose, but they are seeing more and more addicted babies each and every year.
Many of the babies are covered by government insurance at a cost of about $3,500 a day.
And that says nothing about the tragic human cost of beginning life addicted to heroin through no fault of your own.
To learn more about MetroHealth Medical Center’s ‘Mother and Child Dependency Program,’ CLICK HERE.
The birth of his first daughter motivated a man named Jeremy Taugner to get off pills and heroin and start a support group called “C.A.R.E” in Portage County. CLICK HERE for more on this organization.
*Web extra: Watch Bill’s extended interview with Dr. Covington below*
**Wednesday on FOX 8 News at 6 p.m., How do people fight back against pain or addiction? Bill Sheil will take you inside a remarkably successful pain therapy program at the Cleveland Clinic and show you the heroic efforts of people setting up their own therapy groups, trying to get addicts the help they desperately need.
For more on this week’s series, click here.