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Drug-addicted infant rates worry doctors

By Candace Nelson

Of the 12 babies born at Thomas Memorial Hospital one recent weekend, eight were born addicted to drugs.

And while that particular weekend saw a higher rate of babies born with addictions than usual, area doctors believe the problem only seems to be getting worse.

About one in five local babies is born with narcotics or marijuana in their blood.

The issue of what has been termed "neonatal abstinence syndrome" came to the forefront in 2006, said Dr. Stefan Maxwell, a Charleston Area Medical Center neonatologist.

The term describes infants exposed to addictive, illegal or prescription drugs while in the womb.

Maxwell said CAMC sees the same volume of babies born with the syndrome as places like Cabell Huntington Hospital, with which organizers of a pediatric addiction recovery center hope to partner.

Lily's Place, which is targeted to open by late summer or early fall, will help with the rising number of drug-addicted newborns crowding neonatal intensive care units and nurseries. Babies with symptoms of drug addiction can remain in those facilities for up to a week.  

While the babies need complex care, they don't necessarily need a bed in the NICU and could be tying up space for a child with life-threatening concerns.

The drug-addicted babies usually have frequent diarrhea, so skin care is important. They have a shrill cry, and they sometimes need to be put on morphine drips as they experience withdrawal, said Beth Hedrick, director of obstetrics at Thomas Memorial Hospital.

Hedrick said she has seen an increase in the number of babies born addicted to drugs, but the hospital is not yet running out of room to house them.

"We are definitely seeing more," she said. "We're trying to figure it out with everybody else. Some of our babies are kept in a regular newborn nursery if they're not critical. When we get busy, they can tie up the nursery."

Hedrick said the hospital grapples with where to care for the infants. The NICU is most often reserved for critical care babies. The nursery doesn't offer the quiet atmosphere the drug-addicted babies need.

The babies also need limited stimulation and to be monitored longer than usual. And the price of a bed for a single baby - depending on the length of stay - can exceed $20,000.

"We're on the edge of what we'll do next," Hedrick said. "I'm glad Huntington stepped up and did that; it's a great idea. I don't know if we'll be looking at that in the future, but we are seeing more and more. You never know."

Hedrick said the hospital has started a program to help mothers get off drugs before they deliver. The program offers counseling with behavioral doctors and drug screenings.

Steps also are being taken to combat overcrowding.

Maxwell said CAMC isn't overwhelmed with addicted babies, mostly because of efforts to educate people on how to care for them on their own.

"We can usually transfer the kids out to the newborn nursery or a step-down area, so there is no overcrowding," Maxwell said.

"But this goes back for a few years. We've now educated people to take care of them, and we're not being stuffed up at the hospital. At this point in time, the unit is not overflowing."

Hedrick said she anticipates the problem will get worse as time goes on and the Charleston area could benefit from a center similar to Lily's Place in Huntington.

For more information on Lily's Place, visit

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

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