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Program at Tucson hospital gives treatment to newborns exposed to opioids

Posted at 10:19 PM, Jul 06, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-07 08:24:46-04

Health officials say in two weeks in June 36 babies were born in Arizona with possible drug-related withdrawal symptoms.

A quiet room in the NICU at Tucson Medical Center is where babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) get specialized care. NAS is when a baby has withdrawal symptoms because the mother took certain drugs during pregnancy.

The focus of the Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Annex (NASA) is to create an environment specifically for NAS babies in the NICU at TMC.

"We developed it over a year ago, and the reason why we were developing it is we were seeing such a high increase in opiate use, and that includes heroin, prescription drugs, street drugs," said Lori Groenewold, a licensed clinical social worker with TMC.

Groenewold says babies may be in the annex for two weeks to two months. Withdrawal symptoms include extreme high pitched cries or crankiness, shaking, the jitters or seizures.     

The NICU can be a busy place with lots of noise and bright lights, and NAS babies are in a room with little noise, natural lighting, soft music, certified infant massage therapists, and other tools to calm the babies.

TMC says it is the only hospital in southern Arizona with a special area for NAS babies in the NICU. So far this year more than 30 babies have gone through the NASA program, Groenewold said.

The hospital has noticed an increase in NAS cases. In 2015 when TMC began keeping track there were 26 NAS babies in the NICU, and in 2016 there were more than 50.

"These are only babies that end up in the NICU," Groenewold said. "We have probably two to three times more opiate-exposed babies that don't end up in the NICU that are delivered, they stay five days for monitoring, and they go home."

While babies get special care, so do their mothers. Before babies in the NAS program go home Kelly Irving, the director of women's services with CODAC, says mothers and families are provided therapy services including individual and group therapy. 

Irving says the more time mothers spend with their babies, the faster the baby recovers from NAS. The goal is to get treatment early to avoid a potential cases with the Arizona Department of Child Safety.

"We are really aiming to make sure that moms are getting well and having the support that they need so they can raise these babies into healthy individuals and not kind of follow in the same path of addiction," Irving said.

CODAC also offers residential programs and other services for women once they are released from the hospital.

For more information on TMC's program and how to volunteer, click here.