RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) -- The opioid crisis affects tens thousands of people across North Carolina, and with more and more people struggling with opioid addiction, hospitals are trying to find ways to treat the drug’s littlest victims.
Chelsea Gordon makes the most of every moment with her daughter Brianna.
Delighting in playtime and cuddles, the pair shows no signs of the struggles both faced when Brianna was born. Chelsea started using pain pills at 13 and eventually moved on to heroin.
She didn’t know she was expecting a baby until six months into her pregnancy. When she found out, she says she tried to quit but couldn’t.
Her daughter Brianna spent the first month of her life in the hospital.
"It was horrible. It was very, very sad," recalled Gordon.
Doctors across the Triangle say they’ve seen a big increase in babies born to mothers using opioids.
Dr. William Malcolm is the director of the high-risk infant follow-up clinic at Duke. "You look at North Carolina in general over the last ten years. There has been a 900 percent increase in babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome," he said.
Neonatal abstinence syndrome or NAS occurs when babies go through withdrawal symptoms.
"They become very irritable and very fussy. They don't feed very well -- they're hard to calm. They don't sleep well," Malcolm explained. "If they're not treated it can become as extreme as having seizures."
Hospitals monitor newborns for withdrawal signs for several days. If babies need medication, their stay becomes much longer.
"Many NICUs are at the extreme of capacity all the time, we don't know where to put these babies," said Malcolm adding, "It puts a big strain on the hospital. Not only is it for space in the nursery for caring for them but also for resources it takes."
To reduce the time spent in the hospital, Duke developed a special program that allows some newborns with NAS to receive treatments at home.
"We actually discharge the baby home on medications treating their withdrawal and we see them very closely in our follow-up clinic," said Malcolm.
UNC Hospital has also adapted to treat an increasing number of babies born to mothers using opioids.
"We found having them rooming in with the mothers -- mothers and babies being together -- really improve the outcomes on both sides, but especially with the baby with decreased incidence of NAS," explained Dr. Carl Seashore, a pediatrician at UNC.
UNC typically keeps moms and babies who may experience withdrawal symptoms for 72 hours.
"If the length of stay will extend longer than postpartum stay, we move them as a pair to the children's hospital and keep them together," said Seashore.
UNC Hospital works closely with the UNC Horizons program which treats women fighting substance abuse and their children. Pregnant women at Horizons receive extensive counseling.
When Brianna was born, though, Chelsea Gordon wasn't a part of that program yet. She was still using heroin and didn’t know what to expect.
"Just seeing her in pain and shaking because I know what I felt like in that situation. So imagine my daughter, who is not even a month old, feeling like that," Gordon remembered, adding, "She didn't ask for that. It wasn't her fault."
Although it hurt to see her daughter in pain, Brianna’s birth, on Mother’s Day, was a new beginning for Gordon.
"The social workers came to the hospital and said 'we're going to take your child unless you get treatment,' and by the grace of God my social worker told me about Horizons that I could have my child with me and be in treatment," said Gordon.
Now some nine months later, she thanks Horizons and her daughter for her recovery.
"She's my motivation to do better and to be a better person," she said. "Living a life sober and in recovery and having my daughter is so much better than any day I could’ve had when I was using, any day."
Chelsea hopes her story will inspire other women - especially other moms, and expectant moms to get help for their addictions.
For more information about the Horizons program, click here.
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