Addiction to prescription drugs and heroin is a national epidemic. In San Antonio it's creating dependency for some of our youngest Americans: newborns. One local mother who got hooked on drugs got help through a research project aimed at easing the suffering of these babies and their mothers.
The first few days of life can be a living hell for babies born to addicted mothers. They are dependent on the prescription painkillers or heroin their mothers used while they were in the womb. The withdrawal process can last days, weeks, even a couple of agonizing months. The medical term for the condition is Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome or NAS.
Lisa Cleveland, Ph.D., RN, with San Antonio’s U.T. Health Science Center says the symptoms are often intense. “Very high-pitched inconsolable crying, a lot of stomach issues, so vomiting, diarrhea,” Cleveland explained. “These babies don’t sleep well. They don’t feel good.”
According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, about 400 drug dependent babies are born in Bexar County each year. That’s one-third of all the cases in Texas. Cleveland says it’s a psychological as well as a physical problem.
Cleveland: The moms that we’ve worked with have shared stories of extreme shame and guilt for feeling that they caused this for their infant.
Here’s how San Antonian Yolanda Aldana, 27, puts it. “The drug had complete control over me. How could I let it get so far? How could I let it get so bad?”
Aldana’s addiction began after a botched epidural during the birth of her second child created back spasms and inescapable pain. The single mother was frustrated and needed help.
“The doctor prescribed me Vicodin,” Aldana said. “And, you know, I kept telling him I need to take more because I feel like it’s not working and he would just prescribe me more. It was just crazy. I was by myself. You know the drug just seemed to take everything else away, like, took all my pain away.”
Aldana says her doctor got in trouble for overprescribing prescription painkillers. When she could no longer go to the pharmacy, she searched her west San Antonio neighborhood and found heroin, less expensive and more available than Vicodin. “Heroin was ten times better and cheaper. I could find it on the streets,” Aldana added.
She was spending more than $300 a day on her habit, first snorting, then shooting up the illicit narcotic. “It took a toll on me,” she said.
Eventually, she lost custody of her two daughters as she disappeared into a habit that helped her numb the pain of her complicated life.
“I was that person who thought ‘how could people be so stupid?’ How could other women be so dumb to let CPS take away their kids and them not do anything because they’re on drugs,” she said.
Aldana stole from a grocery store to support her habit, landing her in jail for eight days. That’s when she found out then she was pregnant with her third child. “Going to jail was honestly, like, the best thing that ever happened to me,” Aldana admitted.
She got on methadone to quit heroin, went to rehab and delivered her baby at San Antonio’s University Hospital. That’s where Cleveland recruited her for a study of Kangaroo Care, a holding technique where mothers hold newborns skin to skin. Anecdotally, nurses have noticed Kangaroo Care helps calm babies. But can it actually help these special newborns through withdrawals?
“It is one of the recommended soothing techniques for infants who have Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, but we really don’t have any scientific evidence to show whether or not it’s beneficial,” Cleveland explained.
Cleveland’s team monitors heart rates and the salivary cortisol levels, markers of stress in both mother and infant when they are in the Kangaroo Care position. “They go together. Moms and babies belong together. And we feel that they should be studied together,” she added.
Cleveland believes these NAS babies may get through their first weeks of life more easily with Kangaroo Care as one of the interventions.
“Several of them (the mothers) have said that they feel when their baby was skin to skin that their baby was forgiving them. And they felt that some of the shame and the guilt was going away,” Cleveland said. “So that’s really powerful.”
That was Aldana’s experience. “All my regrets and everything that I had went away. The bond that we have is unbreakable because of it. It made it all better just to have her on my chest. Just to have her skin to skin. Just to feel her little heartbeat, to have her feel my heartbeat,” she said.
Now what she used to say about heroin, she says about holding her baby. “It made me feel like there was no other care in the world.”
Aldana is 15 months clean now. After living in the homeless shelter for a while, Aldana now has her own apartment. After going through so much together, she says she and her baby Nevaeh have an unbreakable bond.