HOLLIDAYSBURG - When Blair County Judge Hiram A. Carpenter recently sent a drug-addicted woman to jail to protect her unborn child, he shed light on a problem that has received little attention - babies born with an addiction.
Blair County's drug problems have received a great deal of attention in the past decade with periodic drug raids, several major drug trials each year and the efforts of Operation Our Town, which uses grants to address the effects of the drugs in the community.
But, according to Christine Ferrone, a patient care supervisor at the the Home Nursing Agency in Blair County, "No one ever talks about these babies."
Mirror photo illustration by Patrick Waksmunski and Tom Worthington II
While most babies delivered at area hospitals are healthy, like this one, the problem of drug-addicted newborns is growing locally. Kathy Bost is one of the nurses on the front lines caring for local babies.
The babies come into the world experiencing the same addiction as their mothers and the same problems that come with withdrawal from drugs.
Altoona pediatrician Dr. Rakesh Chopra, who grew up in Hollidaysburg and dealt with drug-addicted babies during his internship at Texas Children's Hospital, said the babies experience tremors, sweating, difficulty in sucking and swallowing, fever and seizures.
"To see that suffering is too bad," said Chopra at his office on the 1200 block of Seventh Avenue.
While the number of local drug babies is not huge, it is steady and is growing, Chopra said.
Altoona Regional Health System, Altoona Hospital Campus, does not keep official statistics on how many babies are born with drug problems, but Chopra said the Level II nursery at the hospital treated about 30 babies for drug addiction in the first six months of this year.
Chopra is one of several pediatricians who oversee the treatment of the babies. Ferrone supervises nurses involved in Home Nursing's Early Intervention Program, which provides treatment to the babies when they leave the hospital.
While the problem doesn't receive as much attention as other aspects of the county's drug woes, there is a small group of doctors, nurses and agency representatives who are aware of the drug babies and who work daily to not only wean them from drugs but also make sure they are placed in a safe environment where they can thrive like other children.
The costs are high
In August, Carpenter dealt with a pregnant woman awaiting sentencing on serious drug charges. She had violated her bail and was using up to 30 packets of heroin a day.
The woman was near term in her pregnancy, and police and parole and probation personnel were concerned she would end up killing her unborn child.
Carpenter met several times with the woman, representatives of law enforcement and Blair County Children, Youth and Families. The woman went first to a treatment facility where she was placed on methadone, a heroin substitute, and then was transferred to the Blair County Prison to await her baby's birth.
Tom Shea, director of the Blair County's Parole and Probation Department, said when the woman's 8-pound son was born, he spent a month in the hospital being weaned from drugs. He then went home to his mother, who has been placed on strict probation by the courts.
"That baby went through pure hell," Shea said.
The young mother remains on probation and undergoes frequent drug testing by county probation officials.
Her case shed light on the problem of expectant mothers using drugs, one that Shea and the county's judges confront frequently.
One of the problems is to wean the mother off drugs during pregnancy.
Shea said his staff is trained to counsel drug-addicted mothers and aid them in attempts to become "clean," or to enter a methadone program.
In an annual report of the activities of the county parole and probation staff, Shea and Scott Shultz, his department's supervisor of the county's Drug Court, said that in the last decade, the Drug Court has been able to keep 33 prospective mothers clean during their pregnancies, saving about $8 million in medical expenses for them and their children.
According to a 1997 study by the Office of Justice Programs, the U.S. Department of Justice, it costs about $250,000 for "care and treatment costs during the first few years of a drug-exposed child's life."
Even though Altoona Regional keeps no official statistics, spokeswoman Patt Keith asked Charles Zorger, senior vice president of finance, to attempt to determine those costs.
Zorger came up with figures showing that drug-addicted babies spend an average of 10.38 days in the hospital, compared to 2.27 days for a healthy child, and the initial costs are about $3,000 higher for the treatment of the drug-addicted child.
'You have a tendency to spoil them'
Kathy Bost has been a registered nurse for 28 years and works in Altoona Regional's specialized nursery.
She explained that two hours after birth, the nurses in her unit begin to keep a score on how the babies are doing, using 25 criteria.
The nurses do this every two or four hours, depending on the baby's initial score.
Every baby is different. Drug-addicted babies can exhibit an "excessive, high-pitched cry," she said.
They experience tremors and shaking. They are often very tense and stiff. Their breathing can be fast, and they can't coordinate their sucking instinct with their swallowing, which makes their feeding problematic.
They may experience high body temperatures.
The nurses try to stabilize the child to the point that morphine and phenobarbital can be administered. The child is then weaned off those drugs so he can go home.
"You feel like these babies didn't deserve anything to have to go through this. You have a tendency to spoil them. You hold them as much as you can," Bost said.
When the child is discharged, Ferrone and three nurses from her early intervention program visit the home and continue the care. Some of the babies still experience withdrawal. They are "fussy" and they need a quiet environment, Ferrone said.
She said the nurses check the baby's vital signs, heart and lungs; keep track of his or her weight; and determine if the child is in a safe environment.
Ferrone said her nurses look at the "whole family dynamic" and try to persuade the mother to undergo treatment for her drug habit if she is not already part of a program.
CYF Director Maryanne Burger is no stranger to the problem of drug-addicted babies.
She was a registered nurse in Los Angeles and worked in a nursery there. She said she keeps a picture in her office of her handing one of the babies over to a father waiting to take the child home.
Burger said the Infants Born to Substance Abusing Mothers group includes representatives of her agency, the hospital, Home Nursing, a treatment agency that operates a methadone clinic and an agency that deals with family problems.
That group reviews the problem of drug-addicted babies every few months, Burger said, pointing out that while not many people talk about it, the subject is on the minds of many who are concerned.
"It's quite painful to see these children off to a very rough start. You try to do the best you can to ease the transition and make it as smooth as possible," Chopra said.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.