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Lily's Place to soothe infants born addicted to drugs

By Candace Nelson

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - In a rising number of cases, a mother's addiction gives rise to a newborn infant's screams.

One of 13 babies in Cabell Huntington Hospital now is born addicted to drugs, according to Dr. David Chaffin, director of the perinatal center.  

Mary Calhoun Brown coddles those inconsolable infants who cry at any light - at any sound. Drug withdrawal consumes their new existence.

"You hold and handle them differently from a normal child," she said.

For three years, Brown has worked at Cabell Huntington Hospital, where as a "cuddler" she tries to offer a sense of comfort to the drug-exposed babies.

When Cabell Huntington began the cuddling program, Brown decided to do something selfless.

"When I went through training, I thought I don't know if I'll be able to do this," she said. "The first time I held one of the drug-exposed babies, something inside of me opened up. This is what I'm supposed to be doing with my free time.

"Some people play golf or tennis or get their nails done. I knew at that minute this was what I should be doing," Brown said.

Her passion fed into Lily's Place, a pediatric addiction recovery center, which she and a handful of others hope to open by late summer or early fall.

Lily isn't one particular baby; she represents all the babies born addicted to drugs through no fault of their own.

"There's a scripture verse saying don't worry about anything because God will take care of you," said Brown, secretary for the Board of Directors for Lily's Place.

"It talks about the lilies of the field. God looks after them so don't worry. The scripture is about protection of things that can't really protect themselves.

"That's how we feel about the babies. If God is taking care of the lilies of the field, he's also looking out for the babies. They didn't ask for drug exposure or to be in horrible pain. It's a constant reminder for us that what we're doing is almost like a mission."

The short verse found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke is motivating the team to open Lily's Place along 7th Avenue in Huntington to accommodate the increasing number of babies who require extra attention.

About a year and a half ago, state Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, was approached by newborn intensive care nurses concerned about babies going through drug withdrawal.

Jenkins since has been communicating with state and federal officials about licenses and other steps necessary to address the crisis.

"It takes any individual about two minutes to be in a NICU unit to see a baby that is basically crying 24/7, and when you look at the ravages of withdrawal on a newborn, and you put on your fiscal hat and think about what's best for the baby and taxpayer, it makes sense," said Jenkins, who is also the president of the Board of Directors for Lily's Place.

Sara Murray, a nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit at Cabell Huntington, said she has seen a dramatic increase in babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome - problems that occur in a newborn who was exposed to addictive illegal or prescription drugs while in the mother's womb - in the past two years.

The problem has become so severe that the 12-bed neonatal therapeutic unit created for these babies in May is full and overflows into the newborn nursery and NICU area.

While babies born addicted to drugs need complex care, they don't necessarily need a bed in the NICU and could be tying up space that another child with life-threatening concerns could use, Murray said.

Lily's Place will be considered a medical treatment facility - a rehab center for newborns. Organizers hope it will be an overflow center of sorts for the hospital.

"When you have a baby that's addicted to drugs, you don't need to have baby MRIs or X-rays if those babies are born healthy otherwise and all they have going on is the drug addiction," Brown said.

"We would be supplying the baby with ever-decreasing amounts of morphine and giving therapeutic care."

The facility will be licensed and regulated by the state, complete with a medical director and nurses trained in caring for the babies. It will be operated as a not-for-profit corporate entity that will be in full compliance with state regulations.

Pediatricians would refer babies to Lily's Place, where they would remain until they no longer required drugs - about four to six weeks.

The facility would care for up to 30 babies with 16 nurseries: 13 double-occupancy and three single-occupancy. Noise and other stress factors would be kept at a minimum in the nurseries.

Also planned is an education center for the mothers.

"I've come to meet the moms; all of these moms know the physical pain of withdrawal, and when they see that their baby is experiencing the same physical pain, the mom has this moment of guilt. That's a real opportunity to reach and start her on her own recovery process," Brown said.

"It's not about pointing fingers. We've had moms who broke their backs in car accidents and became addicted to their prescription pain medicine and didn't plan to get addicted or pregnant.

"These moms are not scary people in alleys, shooting up. They're people you see at your church or on the street. You don't know they're addicted.

"Like everyone else, they feel bad about it. You have to support them. If you don't get them in a recovery program, the baby's outcome is not going to be the best it could be."

A building was donated, and organizers are hoping to complete the project by late summer or early fall with the help of local, state and corporate grants.

Because less medical equipment is needed, Brown said care in the facility will be much less costly than what the state is currently paying for hospital care for these babies.

Jenkins said beds in NICU areas generally cost a couple thousand dollars a night. At Lily's Place, stays will cost a couple hundred a night.

The facility is modeled after the Pediatric Interim Care Center in Kent, Wash. - the only center of its kind in the country, said Murray, the clinical adviser for Lily's Place.

Murray and another nurse traveled to the center and spent five days learning how they treat the babies. Murray and others will train incoming nurses at Lily's Place.

"We knew we needed to do something because we were used to only seeing four a year. We didn't know how to care for these babies. Now, we're consistently filling a 12-bed unit and having overflow into NICU," Murray said.

The group hopes that as the project gains momentum, it will encourage the opening of more facilities across the state.

"Our goal is to work with the hospital and have that dialogue and find our niche. I think Lily's Place is going to be a big asset for the babies. That's our number-one goal: providing the best care we can for the babies," Murray said.

"It's heart-wrenching to see what a big problem we have in this area . . . We are just in the infancy of Lily's Place, but we're working hard and have a long way to go and a lot of things to do . . . We want to be a voice for them and get them the kind of care they need."

For more information or to donate, visit

Contact writer Candace Nelson at or 304-348-5148. Follow her at

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