Special Report: Local hospital takes unique approach to treating babies born addicted to opioids
In a dark, quiet room in Ascension St. Joseph Hospital, volunteer Ann Foley rocks babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit every Tuesday.
“It was on my bucket list when I retired,” Foley said.
Many of the babies she rocks, and sings Irish lullabies to, are born addicted to opioids.
“You can tell they’re agitated and sometimes their bodies will jump almost,” Foley said. “They are fidgety. It's very sad.”
The babies are born addicted as a result of their mothers abusing the drugs while pregnant. The CDC says Opioid Use Disorder went up more than seven times among pregnant women in Wisconsin between 1999 and 2014.
“We had one here and one here and one there, and now we're seeing them all the time,” Dr. Mary Mishefske, Neonatologist at Ascension St. Joseph Hospital, said.
In response to the increase, five years ago St. Joe's opened a special room called the Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Room or simply The NAS Room, named after the withdrawal babies experience when they are born addicted.
“It’s the room in the back,” Dr. Mishefske said. “We keep the lights off almost all of the time. It's a quiet room.”
The only noise in the NAS Room, is the sound of their heart monitors.
“If the narcotics get to them, they could stop breathing,” Dr. Mishefske said.
According to the Department of Wisconsin Health Services, in the last 5 years, 2,744 babies in Wisconsin have been born addicted. At St. Joe’s more than 30 NAS babies are cared for every year.
At any given time, St. Joe’s is providing care to about 3-5 addicted babies suffering from a range of symptoms.
“They sneeze a lot, they have diarrhea, they have little fevers, they cry a lot, they don't sleep between feedings,” Dr. Mishefske said.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse says, on average, NAS babies have to stay in the hospital eight times longer post-delivery than non-addicted babies and their hospital stays are about $60-thousand more expensive.
“To withdraw a baby you have to give them a narcotic, a hair of the dog so to speak,” Dr. Mishefske said. “Then we decrease the dose slowly day by day.”
St. Joe's says their NAS room is cutting the average length of stay for their addicted babies and the amount of medicine needed to treat them in half.
“They were just too irritable to be in a regular room, Dr. Mishefske said. “There was too much light and noise. The monitors would be startling. They couldn't handle it. They became frantic.”
Dr. Mishefske said surprisingly the mothers who deliver NAS babies aren't always drug addicts.
“We have mothers who have back pain and they get opiates, they get addicted, and then their baby comes in addicted and has to stay,” she said.
Dr. Mishefske believes the solution is prenatal education, and while the NAS babies will recover, long term results aren't clear.
But in the short-term while they are getting treatment, people like Ann simply holding and rocking them, can make all the difference.
“What I watch is incredible,” Foley said. “There’s a miracle every day here.”
Other hospitals in Milwaukee are also treating NAS babies. At Aurora Health Care infants who are exposed to opioids are observed for 5-7 days for signs of withdrawal. They are also kept in a quiet environment.
Froedtert Hospital Birth Center has a special care nursery with dim lights and designated rooms for NAS babies.