St. Mary-Corwin seeks volunteer help with heroin babies

Even the healthiest of infants will fuss, cry or otherwise throw a fit when they are uncomfortable or need something.

But when a child is born high from or dependent on opioids, those babyhood tantrums quickly escalate into inconsolable fits of rage. Their tiny bodies go through severe withdrawal, local experts said, which can manifest itself as everything from fussing to writhing screaming fits.

Think of a severe case of colic and ramp up the discomfort from there, said Paulette Mapes, a registered nurse and manager of The Birth Place at St. Mary-Corwin Medical Center.

(Criminal Defense Attorneys Florida)

“It’s rare that we do not have at least one baby in our nursery withdrawing from heroin,” she said. “They have a hard time. They have a hard time even when they’re being cuddled and held.”

With as many as six infants going through the agonizing process of sobering up, helping hands to snuggle the babies can be in short supply. So Mapes, neonatal intensive care chief Dr. Steven Simerville and St. Mary-Corwin Volunteer Services Manager Sherri Lombard are looking for a few dozen volunteers with soft hearts, warm arms and iron stomachs. The hospital is launching a volunteer snuggling program to provide comfort for its most vulnerable cases of chemical dependency.

Growing problem

In 2015, Simerville’s intensive care unit treated 17 newborns who were diagnosed as suffering from intrauterine opioid addiction. That’s a dramatic increase from the six babies cared for in 2014.

The condition is called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome and is characterized by a child writhing, screaming and suffering from severe diarrhea and associated complications like diaper rash and extreme dehydration. Opioid-dependent babies also tend to have trouble eating so they don’t grow normally, and they struggle to regulate their emotions.

That means a simple missed feeding or a dirty diaper can quickly escalate into a catastrophic meltdown.

“These babies start out just as fussy, then they progress to jittery,” Simerville said. “Eventually they get to the point where they exhaust themselves to sleep.

“It’s just terrible.”

Children born with suspected cases of the syndrome are ranked based on stage. Stage one cases are capable of staying in the delivery and recovery rooms with their families, Simerville said. That’s because at least one member of the family can calm the new arrival when he or she gets fussy, and the child is mellow enough to be calmed.

Stage two babies are too irritable to stay with their families, Simerville said, but may not require pharmacological intervention. Instead, they are moved to the NICU for observation.

Stage three babies are the most severe cases and, no matter what, will require some sort of medicinal treatment to wean them off of the heroin. The drug options could include morphine, methadone or, in the most severe cases, clonidine.

But one thing is universal: “They still need a loving response to their crying,” Simerville said.

(Criminal Defense Attorneys Florida)

‘A loving touch’

And that’s where the volunteers come in.

Keys to helping a baby through withdrawal involve swaddling the wee one tightly, keeping him or her in a low light and low-stimulation environment and ensuring that the child is on a regular schedule. And when multiple little ones are upset — one child’s meltdown can disturb the rest of the unit — Mapes said unit staff don’t necessarily have the time or resources to dedicate to soothing the withdrawing child.

“These babies are having a hard time and sometimes caring for them can be taxing,” she said. “It definitely (is) when a nurse has a full workload.

“That baby needs a loving touch, that soothing that cuddlers who aren’t medical professionals are perfect for. . . . Our hope is to have a 24/7, 365 availability (of on-call volunteers) so if this baby’s having a rough time, we can have someone who can love on the baby.”

Lombard, who oversees volunteer services at the hospital, has some pretty specific criteria for would-be cuddlers. To volunteer, candidates must be: 21 or older; capable of passing a background check; either willing to receive a flu vaccine or able to produce current vaccine records; willing to have blood drawn for a TB test; understanding of confidentiality laws; able to attend an orientation so they know what the children are going through; and available to come in at the drop of a hat to help out.

They must also be willing to return the baby to its parents without question or judgment. That’s because research has consistently shown that, in nearly all cases, children do best when they remain with their biological families.

“These mothers are suffering from addiction,” Mapes said. “I have yet to meet the Mom who I really felt (was) thinking ‘I want to hurt my baby,’ ”

“They love their babies,” Simerville added.

Lombard hopes to get enough volunteers to be able to schedule cuddlers for two-hour blocks of time. That means she will need 12 volunteers for each day.

“It takes a special person to do this,” Lombard said. “You have that look when you see a baby,” she broke into a beaming grin, “but that’s not the baby you’re here for.”

But it is the baby you can help the most, all three said. We develop our understanding of normal human interaction while still in infancy, Simerville said, so a volunteer snuggler could give a vulnerable child a formative taste of what is an appropriate parental response.

“You think about any sick child and loving on them,” Mapes said. “Just loving on them so they feel that human-to-human connection. That’s what they need as much as they need me.”

rfoster@chieftain.com

(Criminal Defense Attorneys Florida)

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