Drug-addicted babies: ‘Oxy Express’ gives birth to new problem’

Posted on Jul 30, 2012

South Florida Sun-Sentinel.com

‘Oxy Express’ gives birth to new problem: drug-addicted babies

By Nicole Brochu, Sun Sentinel

10:31 AM EDT, July 28, 2012

Florida’s pill epidemic has spread to a new generation of innocents — newborns hooked on prescription drugs.

The trend has even startled Attorney General Pam Bondi, who called it “the next crack baby epidemic.”

The fallout is wide-reaching.

Thousands of babies each year are struggling through withdrawal. An already-strapped child welfare system is seeing its caseload swell. Area rehab centers are adding new beds to meet demand. And neonatal nurses, the ones on the front lines of a new war on addiction, are steeling themselves through the months-long care of jittery, screaming, inconsolable infants.

“It’s actually pretty horrifying and more and more out of control all the time,” said Mary Roberts, director of the Family Birthplace at Memorial Hospital West in Hollywood, which consistently has at least one drug-addicted baby in the NICU at any given time. “We [as a society] are not equipped to take care of all these babies.”

Newborns hospitalized for exposure to drugs surged fivefold between 2004 and 2011, the Statewide Task Force on Prescription Drug Abuse and Newborns learned on Monday. Last year alone, 2,019 babies born in Florida were diagnosed with drug withdrawal, narcotic exposure or both. That’s a rate of 6.33 addicted babies for every 1,000 born last year, compared to one of every 1,000 just five years ago.

An even bigger concern: Most everyone believes the growing trend doesn’t tell the whole picture. Because the signs of withdrawal don’t usually show up in a newborn for two or three days, and the moms are often less than forthcoming about their prescription habit, many addicted babies likely go home undetected, their health endangered without proper care and supervision.

There are some happy endings, thanks to innovative treatment programs like the center one West Palm Beach mom credits with helping her get clean before she gave birth. But not enough, yet, to abate the damage done to thousands of ailing babies.

Like crack babies or those born with fetal alcohol syndrome, infants diagnosed with “neonatal abstinence syndrome” exhibit dangerous signs of withdrawal: jitters, trouble feeding and putting on weight, diarrhea, respiratory problems. They are so sensitive to light and noise, their cribs or incubators have to be covered with blankets. To wean them off the drugs, they’re fed morphine or methadone. Even after the typical three-month recovery process, many face developmental delays and health implications from premature birth.

“These babies don’t cry like normal babies, they shriek,” Bondi said. “Once you see a baby like that, it changes your life.”

Fresh off a clean victory after cracking down on Florida’s pill mills, Bondi was floored to hear the Oxy Express had given birth to such tragedy.

“I really thought it was unbelievable because we just had fought the pill mills,” said Bondi, who launched the Statewide Task Force on Prescription Drug Abuse and Newborns in April after taking a heart-rending tour of a Tampa neonatal unit. “I told the neonatologist, ‘I can’t let this become the next crack baby epidemic,’ and he said, ‘It already has,’ and the numbers have proven that.”

While the Tampa area is seeing the biggest numbers, South Florida is hardly immune.

Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, which used to see one or two drug-addicted newborns every couple of months, is seeing twice that now, said Maria “Mary” Osuch, NICU nurse manager. And 10 of the 250 babies Wellington Regional Medical Center treated in its NICU over the past year were “pill mill babies,” according to NICU Director Joe DelVecchio.

“We’ve definitely seen a shift from the street drug addictions to the prescription drug addictions,” said Teresa Russell, Wellington Regional’s clinical manager of obstetrics. “For some babies, it’s a long road.”

For many moms, too. Every baby who tests positive for drugs must be reported to the state Department of Children and Families, which gives the mother two choices: Complete a treatment program or lose your baby.

Between 2008 and 2011, the number of “drug-misuse” cases reported by a nurse or hospital — involving parents who abused drugs or alcohol or children who had them in their system — jumped 14 percent from 276 to 315 in Palm Beach County, and 37 percent from 291 to 399 in Broward, according to DCF figures. Most of these are moms, and though the statistics include all drugs, much of the increase is due to prescription abuse, DCF officials said.

“We have lots more kids coming into foster care because of drug addiction,” said Cathy Claud, DCF’s substance abuse service coordinator in Palm Beach County.

Unlike the crack epidemic, which disproportionately affected low-income minorities, the prescription drug crisis has “no socio-economic barriers,” said Broward Health’s Osuch, who has seen “more white than non-white” moms giving birth to addicted babies.

At the Drug Abuse Foundation treatment program in Delray Beach, for example, the number of moms under DCF supervision for prescription drug abuse ballooned from 477 in 2006 to 609 in 2011 — and about 63 percent of them were white, according to the foundation’s data.

“Oxy for the child welfare population, it was surprising even to us when we saw how that problem has grown over the years,” foundation Executive Director Alton Taylor said.

So many new and pregnant moms are coming to get clean at Gratitude House, the West Palm Beach facility is adding four beds to its eight-bed Mothers and Infants in Treatment Together (MITT) program, Executive Director Linda Kane said.

But there is good news. Programs like these are helping mothers find sobriety.

For Misty Keen, 24, pregnancy was the wake-up call to shake her dependence on the 30-pill-a-day habit she developed after a boyfriend got her hooked on oxycontin and Xanax.

“I honestly felt like I didn’t want to live the way I was living anymore,” the West Palm Beach mother said. “I was pregnant, I was escorting, DCF was telling me they were going to put my 5-year-old up for adoption. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

So after two years of addiction, she entered Plantation General Hospital’s detox program while four months pregnant, then moved into one of Gratitude House’s MITT beds, eventually giving birth to a healthy girl while clean. Eleven months later, Keen is pill-free, her 7-month-old baby is thriving, and she is on her way toward regaining custody of her 5-year-old.

“I feel like I finally did something right,” Keen said.

Bondi hopes to see her task force come up with long-term strategies to yield more success stories like Keen’s — moms getting clean before they give birth to addicted babies screeching in pain and facing uncertain futures.

“I really want Florida to become a model for the rest of the country for tackling this devastating problem, and saving our newborns,” she said.

nbrochu@tribune.com

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