Wonder Osborne spoke with a whisper.
The lights in the room were off or dim.
She cradled a newborn who was overly sensitive to light and sound as he recovered from opioid withdrawals at Regional Medical Center on Wednesday.
“It’s sad to see babies in this condition, but I’m trying to give back,” Osborne said as she fed the baby from a bottle. “My heart goes out to these children.”
Osborne is one of a group of volunteers who assist specifically in the Anniston hospital’s program to help babies born with opioid withdrawals. Created two years ago in response to a rise in local opioid use, the group represents RMC’s effort to battle what federal statistics reveal to be a nationwide trend of pregnant mothers using opioids.
The Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome program keeps babies with signs of opioid withdrawal in a special nursery where they’re watched by a team of nurses and volunteers. Babies with severe withdrawal symptoms are treated with morphine. The newborns are also held and swaddled daily and fed on a strict schedule.
“We did this because we were seeing more incidents of it happening,” Lynn Watson, director of obstetrics at RMC, said about rates of babies born with opioid withdrawals.
Opioids are in a family of drugs that include heroin and various prescription painkillers.
According to an August report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, national opioid use rates as counted in an obstetrical context more than quadrupled between 1999 and 2014. Specifically, the national prevalence of opioid use jumped 333 percent in the time period — to 6.5 cases from 1.5 cases per 1,000 delivery hospitalizations.
Watson said that of the 2,062 babies delivered between August 2017 and August 2018 at RMC, 324 were identified as being at risk for opioid withdrawal symptoms. And of those babies identified, 41 required extra treatment in the NAS program, Watson said.
As for the mothers, it’s difficult to put them into any one category, Watson said.
“There are some moms whose baby is in withdrawal, but you’d never know they’re on anything,” she said. “Then some are on multiple things ... there’s no classic person who you can say, ‘this is a NAS mother.’”
Watson added that many of the mothers are basically self-medicating because they’re coming from a bad home life and are being abused or have their own mental health issues.
Ashley Bell, a registered nurse who was overseeing the NAS nursery on Wednesday, said some babies stay in the program between 20 and 30 days until their symptoms subside. And those withdrawal symptoms vary.
“Typically, the most common ones are tremors in their arms and legs,” Bell said. “They can have increased muscle tone which makes their limbs rigid … they have restlessness and they sneeze a lot or they can have excessive diarrhea and vomiting and high temperatures.”
Bell said she’s been a nurse for eight years and during that time, she’s seen the need for the NAS program.
“Every year I see more and more babies with these symptoms,” Bell said. “It wasn’t as bad then as it is now.”
Overall opioid abuse has risen sharply nationally over the last decade, becoming a significant concern among health experts, the government and medical officials dealing with the crisis.
“Our opioid cases are up,” said Brian McVeigh, district attorney for Calhoun County.
McVeigh said the state passed a law several years ago that lets prosecutors charge women who use drugs while pregnant. The law has had the unintended consequence of reducing the number of mothers getting prenatal care and treatment, McVeigh said.
The hospital’s NAS program has started working with the district attorney’s office to ensure more mothers get the treatment they need and aren’t prosecuted. Through the program, mothers are given access to drug counseling and therapy services, which in turn can keep them from being prosecuted, McVeigh said.
“Our intent from the start is to help moms get off drugs and get the baby drug-free,” McVeigh said.
Getting the mothers help is as important as treating the babies, Watson said.
“Developing a relationship with these girls and talking to them can be better than any kind of medicine,” Watson said. “What we try to do in here is love the mothers and the babies.”
To volunteer for the NAS program, call 256-235-5132 or visit www.rmccares.org.