Babies born addicted: How the opioid crisis threatens Tennessee’s tiniest residents

Babies born addicted: How the opioid crisis threatens Tennessee’s tiniest residents

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - It’s part of an epidemic sweeping across the country -- pregnant women putting their babies at risk through drug use, both illicit and prescribed.

Joelle, like thousands of Tennessee moms, has a secret. At age 25, she says she began experimenting with drugs as a teenager

“Whenever I was in high school I used like normal high school kids do, just for fun basically,” said Joelle.

The fun turned into a full-blown opioid addition to a stronger painkiller called Opana.

“For an addict, kind of to a certain point, drugs make you feel normal and being sober makes you feel weird,” said Joelle.

Then in 2015, her addiction came face to face with motherhood. She says she stopped using drugs during her pregnancy and gave birth to a healthy, drug-free baby girl.

But then legitimate prescriptions after having the baby jump started her drug addiction again.

“They gave me Lortabs, and I really needed it,” said Joelle. “I had a hard birth. I was in a lot of pain.”

The addition took hold just in time for her second pregnancy.

“I was clean for about a month and then my addict brain started coming out and I thought some pregnant women are prescribed pills,” said Joelle. “That’s what my addict brain was telling me, you know? Some women are prescribed pain pills and their pregnancy is fine.”

Joelle says she used opioids on and off during her second pregnancy, putting her baby at risk for Neonatal Abstinence Sydrome, a condition newborn babies suffer when they go through withdrawal from the drugs they were exposed to in the womb.

NAS symptoms usually occur within hours of birth and include shaking, vomiting, difficulty eating and high-pitched crying.

Babies born addicted: How the opioid crisis threatens Tennessee’s tiniest residents

Last year in Shelby County, 48 babies were born with NAS, just a fraction of the nearly 900 NAS babies born statewide.

Kevin Hammerman, chief executive officer of Baptist Memorial Women’s Hospital, says the epicenter of NAS births in Tennessee -- the Appalachian region -- coincides with the state’s opioid epidemic.

“If you think about it, it’s where life can be hard, so that’s the coal-mining region,” said Hammerman. “Very tough life for people, and so the likelihood and incidents of pain conditions show up where there are those type of lifestyles.”

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, in 2015 Tennessee health care providers wrote nearly 50-percent more opioid prescriptions than the national average.

Hammerman says doctors are getting smarter about how they prescribe drugs to manage pain, leading to fewer NAS cases overall.

“You don’t see the automatic renewal with the prescription, you don’t see the 30-day supply instead of 10-day supply, and so the reality is then there is just less medication circulating out there to be abused,” said Hammerman.

But Joelle’s addiction was already in full swing when she learned she was pregnant last year, and she says she never told doctors about the prescriptions she was taking -- a potentially dangerous move.

“If we are aware she was on certain medications during pregnancy that we alerted to, we can observe the baby for these symptoms,” said Dr. Esmond Arrindelle, neonatologist.

“So if we don’t see symptoms during that time because we’re not aware, that baby could go through those symptoms at home without treatment," said Teresa Bentley, a neonatal intensive care nurse. “That would be my fear is that they need to be treated.”

Joelle gave birth to her second baby in July.

“But whenever he was born, he was perfect,” she said.

A miracle, considering his mother’s addiction.

“He’s still healthy and chubby and perfect, but I have decided to give him up for adoption,” said Joelle. “After I had him I had really bad postpartum depression and got on heroin.”

Joelle now lives at a drug rehabilitation facility, an unfortunate example of the vicious cycle of opioid abuse in this country.

In 2013, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to make the condition reportable to the department of health.

According to the Shelby County Department of Health, most of the babies born addicted in west Tennessee are the result of a mother’s prescription abuse mixed with heroin use. THat turned their focus to prevention and education, especially for women of child-bearing age.

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