While the opioid epidemic has affected Americans in all communities, some communities have been hit harder than others. At PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center in Longview, nearly half of the expectant mothers giving birth suffer from a component of substance abuse, which is more than double the statewide average. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray — who visited the medical center this summer — said it was one of the most shocking facts she had heard.
Considering this high rate of substance abuse — which includes opioid abuse — St. John took steps to increase services for addicted mothers and their babies, helping them get off to a better start together. The increased need started to become apparent last summer, when Emergency Room and Birth Center Director Natalie Booker joined the medical center’s team and began tracking the babies delivered at St. John.
The results were an eye-opener, as she found that about 10 percent of babies born at the hospital had to be transferred more than 40 miles down the highway to PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver to be treated for drug withdrawal symptoms. The physical distance can be hard for mothers and families that lack the means to travel, and the long-distance transfer can often sever the link between a mother and her baby at the most important time for bonding.
Now, when pregnant women suffering from addiction first check in at St. John for a prenatal consult, they are greeted with numerous wraparound services. Many pregnant women actively using heroin/methamphetamines and opioids are referred to the PeaceHealth opioid treatment clinic. Also, the medical center restructured its birthing unit earlier this year, and mothers suffering from substance abuse are disclosing their addictions more often.
The babies born to opioid-addicted mothers often develop narcotic abstinence syndrome (NAS), which can lead to hypersensitivity to light, nausea, vomiting and tremors. Babies with NAS often need constant cuddling for their tremors, and they can struggle with feeding, taking up to an hour and a half to finish a bottle. When babies at the hospital begin to show symptoms of NAS, they are taken to the nursery, given an oral narcotic to mitigate their symptoms and placed on monitors for caregivers to track. Natalie said she plans to start a project to track NAS babies over the course of a lifetime to better gauge the impact of early intervention.