CAMPBELL COUNTY—Tremors. Vomiting.Runny nose.
These are some of the symptoms of drug withdrawal and can vary widely depending on the substance an individual is withdrawing from.
The symptoms are nearly identical when it happens to newborns with neonatal abstinence syndrome — a set of symptoms that present soon after birth in babies born with a chemical dependency because of their mother’s substance abuse.
A new venture between Ridgeview Behavioral Health Center, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee, Jellico Community Hospital and Dayspring Family Health Center could cut down on instances of chemically-dependent newborns. BCBS fronted $290,000 for the two-year venture in Campbell County.
Mothers and Infants Sober Together (M.I.S.T.) sets to stymy the problem of infant dependency before birth — and before the child is removed from its mother’s custody. Through intervention—either before a woman becomes pregnant or once she begins to receive prenatal care—the goal is to cut down on the instances of NAS and help the babies get a proper start to their lives with sober mothers. The program began in 2009 in Anderson and Roane counties, but became available in Jellico in June.
“There’s a desire to intervene while the woman is pregnant, but we work with women while they’re pregnant up to a child being one year of age,” said M.I.S.T. program manager Michelle Jones. “That being said we’re not going to turn a woman away if she wants help.”
Megan Hill is the obstetrics director at the hospital in Jellico — the only facility in Campbell County with a birthing unit. Hill has seen a number of newborns from Campbell, Scott and Whitley counties present with NAS symptoms.
“I couldn’t even tell you a number,” she said. “Many.”
The newborns are often suffering from an opioid –painkiller- dependency due to their mother’s’ drug abuse.
The babies require extra care at birth, sometimes just an extra few days of observation as their bodies detox from the medication. Other times they require transfer to Knoxville for treatment at the University of Tennessee Medical Center or the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, where they sometimes receive more painkillers to slowly wean their systems from the mother’s addiction.
Babies from Jellico are often sent to UTMC for treatment, though five of them have gone to ETCH since 2010 – the earliest year for statistics according to Erica Estep, ETCH spokesperson.
The Tennessee Department of Health also tracks instances of NAS across the state. Since Jan. 1, there have been 490 reported cases of NAS statewide.
Thirteen of those cases came from Campbell County mothers, according to Shelley Walker, TDH spokesperson.
During the July 11 M.I.S.T. kick-off at Indian Mountain State Park in Jellico, Dr. David Reagan, chief medical officer for the TDH explained more about the origin of the prescription drug epidemic.
Studies in the mid 1990s seemed to discount the addictiveness of narcotic painkillers, which made doctors more likely to prescribe the narcotics for pain.
Between 1990 and 2010, there was a four-fold increase of prescribed painkillers, Reagan said.
By 2001, the instance of dependent newborns had increased 10 times.
By 2005, the most commonly prescribed drug was narcotics, and the United States consumes between 60 and 80 percent of the world’s pain pills.
With the increase in availability of painkillers meant painkiller consumption among pregnant women increased five times.
Eric Wangsness, CEO at Jellico Community Hospital said he had his “a-ha” moment about NAS when he was walking through the hospital and found a nurse holding a baby.
The mother had gone home. The newborn was detoxing.
“I was shocked, sad and really taken a back,” he said. “Life could be tough enough when you get a good running start.”
While it is illegal to buy and sell narcotics, doctor shop and abuse painkillers, mothers with substance abuse issues cannot be held criminally responsible for the harm their babies suffer during pregnancy.
In March, two Campbell County women were charged with assaulting their unborn children for drug use while pregnant. Their babies were born with NAS. The charges were later dropped because of a Feb. 1 Tennessee Attorney General Opinion.
“A mother’s drug use also does not qualify as criminal child abuse, neglect or endangerment or criminal aggravated child abuse, neglect or endangerment, because the applicable statues do not encompass actions committed against a fetus,” the opinion said.
If laws are passed in the future making drug abuse during pregnancy a chargeable offense, M.I.S.T. should be able to stop the problem before the courts need to become involved.
Women have several different avenues of being referred into the M.I.S.T. program. The most common way for Campbell County women will be referral through one of Dayspring’s clinics. The clinic provides prenatal care and has the ability to refer mothers who struggle with addiction. Jellico Hospital can also refer a woman into the program if she comes to deliver a baby and did not receive prenatal care.
Women with addiction problems and an infant younger than 12 months old can also call and ask to become part of the M.I.S.T. program.
Once in the program, the mothers are provided with group therapy, counseling, parenting classes, in home case management and other resources to help them get clean and stay sober. The program lasts 24 weeks and can take six to nine months to complete.
Women who have completed the program in other counties praise the program, Hill said.
“They really had successes. They really bragged on the program. They were really complimentary of the program,” she said.
Officials hope that the M.I.S.T. program will be successful in Campbell County and then expanded to include more areas.
“I hope in your success you’ll be a light to other communities facing the same problem,” Reagan said during the M.I.S.T. kickoff.
Eighty-nine women have successfully completed the M.I.S.T. program, Jones said.
M.I.S.T. is open to any woman with drug and alcohol problems who is pregnant or has an infant up to 12 months old. More information about the program is available at www.dayspringfhc.com or by calling 784-5771, ext. 138.