Hidden America: Nearly Half of Newborns at Tennessee Hospital Are Drug-Dependent

Tennessee hospital treats infants suffering from painkiller withdrawal.

July 11, 2012, 12:53 PM

July 11, 2012— -- In the neo-natal intensive care unit at the East Tennessee Children's Hospital in Knoxville, nurses give baby Grayson morphine every three hours to help ease his painful withdrawal symptoms.

"He's currently on 160 micrograms," said nurse Andrew Pressnell.

Other newborn babies shake and scream as nurses rush to administer care around the clock. Nearly half of the infants in the hospital's NICU are suffering from opiate withdrawal -- most from prescription painkillers.

Baby Grayson was quaking when he was admitted to the hospitals NICU at just 48 hours old. He was born with a serious drug dependency because his pregnant mother was addicted to painkillers. Grayson was brought to Children's Hospital from another hospital to wait for a spot in its special unit for newborns detoxing from painkillers. This specialized unit, just for babies going through withdrawal, is now full.

In fact, out of the 58 babies in the hospital's NICU, 23 of them are going through withdrawal from prescription pills, including OxyContin, Vicodin and methadone.

"I know people probably think I exaggerate when I say they have this very fearful look in their eyes, well they do," said Carla Saunders, the NICU's head nurse.

Saunders is helping develop a treatment program for these newborns by using a powerful combination of drugs, trial and error, and lots of love and care. It can take weeks, even months, for these tiny bodies to withdrawal from whatever their mothers were hooked on. It costs $53,000 per baby to wean them, and 60 percent of the cases are on Medicaid.

Saunders said she used to go home in tears after watching the newborns suffer, but over time, she has grown accustomed to it. She now pours her emotions into helping the little ones.

"When I started, you maybe had a withdrawal baby once in a while and then it was once a month, and then it was once a week and then it was once a day," she said. "We got six this weekend, all at one time, within almost 48 hours."

Baby Grayson had to wait two days for a spot to open up at the hospital's specialized NICU. After a few days of being on morphine, the infant seemed to be a bit calmer and not as shaky -- a big difference from when he was first brought in.

Ashton, Grayson's mother, is just 19 years old. She told ABC News was still in high school when she tried Roxicodone, a prescription painkiller, for the first time as a party drug. Ashton said painkillers were easy to find.

"It's crazy to see how many kids are strung out on opiates," she said. "I mean, you go to school and that's all you hear, that's all they talk about, that's all that's there."

Because of her drug habit, Ashton said she lost a college basketball scholarship and spent entire paychecks she earned from waitressing to buy the illegal prescription drugs. And she said she knows all too well what it's like to have a family member addicted to painkillers.

"I grew up around it, I know, and it wasn't fun," she said, though tears.

Having tried to go cold turkey on her own, Ashton said she knows just how painful withdrawal can be.

"You get cold chills, your skin feels like it's crawling," she said. "You don't want anybody to touch you. You're sweaty, you're yucky, you're just uncomfortable, you're irritable."

Ashton said it's upsetting to watch her infant son go through the same thing.

"It drives me crazy," she said. "It makes me beat myself up every day."

As she was trying to recover, the young mother said she was taking methadone when she was pregnant with Grayson. But doctors advise expecting mothers not to stop using the drug because the baby might suffer from potentially lethal withdrawal in the womb and the mother could have a miscarriage.

Doctors and nurses worked for days to wean Grayson down from morphine, but after some progress, the infant suffered a setback. Grayson was jittery and tremulous, so Saunders decided he wasn't ready to be weaned off the morphine yet.

But Susan Kovac, an attorney for the state's Department of Children's Services, said social workers will likely try to keep Ashton and Grayson together so long as Ashton continues treatment.

"The first thing we would like to do is to keep families together," Kovac said. "If we can't, we're going to look at, is there a grandmother, is there an aunt, is there a second cousin, somebody who can, within the village, raise that child. And then foster care. Foster care is the last option."

And yet, in Knox County, Tenn., foster care has jumped by 50 percent in the past three years. Kovac said that jump is "absolutely" because of painkiller addictions.

The Knoxville Children's Hospital's NICU is a place of enormous heartache, but now and again, hope. Another baby named Mason, who went through withdrawal treatment for three months, slowly made a recovery. After 88 days in the NICU, Mason was on his very last days of his wean and almost ready to go home.

"It's never easy to say goodbye to them because we do get attached," Saunders said. "We know that we have given them their best shot at the first few days or weeks, or months of their life."

But for now, Grayson, who is a little over three weeks old, has shown much improvement but this rollercoaster ride is unpredictable.

"It's just hard," his mother said. "I mean, you don't plan on having him. None of it was planned... I wanted better for him. I wanted to be the mom that I didn't have. I didn't want him to be like I was."

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