KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Opioid use is on the rise in the United States, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 70 percent of all drug related overdose deaths were caused by opioids.
The opioid crisis isn’t just affecting adults. The number of newborns born to mothers who used illegal and prescription opioids during pregnancy is also on the rise. CDC data said the number of babies born with NAS, or Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, increased five fold from 2004 to 2014.
Victoria Worden, who lives in the metro, used heroine while she was pregnant with her now two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Liliana. She went to rehab while she was pregnant, and has proudly maintained her sobriety for more than two and a half years. But it was a long road to get there.
Following a car crash, a doctor prescribed Worden prescription painkillers.
“I had this newfound energy,” Worden said. “I felt that this was my saving grace, not realizing that I was going to lose everything due to this.”
Worden said she was naive about the Oxycodone’s strength.
“What drew me to it so much, was not only did I not feel pain, but all of a sudden I was really happy,” Worden said. “Like all this depression and stuff I was going through, maybe some post partum depression, I’m not sure. But that was gone instantly.”
As Worden’s drug problem got worse, she got better at hiding it from her husband and the two daughters she already had.
“I’m doing normal things,” Worden said. “But I have this whole secret.”
Worden left her husband, and social services removed her daughters from her custody.
“One day I have a husband and kids and a home and two months later I have lots of warrants,” Worden said. “I don’t have my children. I don’t have a husband, and if I don’t use I am really violently ill.”
Worden said she was so angry and depressed, her drug use got worse. She got into a relationship with an abusive man who taught her how to use heroin intravenously. Worden got away from him, but by that time she was pregnant and still using heroin.
“I had never been in a situation like that before and I didn’t know how to handle it,” Worden said.
Although Worden knew she was pregnant, she didn’t know how to stop using heroin. According to the CDC, heroin is uniquely addicting, and is very difficult to come off of without medical intervention.
“You already know that you’re wrong,” Worden said. “You already know you don’t want to do this. You know you’re pregnant with this baby, and you’re doing the worst of the worst thing you can do.”
Worden saw a doctor when she was about five months pregnant but said she felt judged by the medical staff.
When babies are born to mothers who use prescription or illegal opioids during pregnancy, they’re at risk for NAS, or Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. It’s withdrawl from the drugs. The CDC said nationally, the number of babies born with NAS increased five fold from 2004 to 2014. There’s a baby born with NAS every 15 minutes.
“Not all babies who are exposed to those drugs actually experience withdrawal,” Dr. Jodi Jackson said. “It’s really hard to predict.”
Jackson is the medical director of AdventHealth Shawnee Mission’s NICU and a neonatologist at Children’s Mercy. She cares for babies with NAS. She said symptoms of NAS include shaking, constipation, excessive stooling, problems eating and sleeping and excessive irritability.
“We can do what we call comfort cares, which is things to just make them more comfortable, swaddling them more tightly, feeding them more frequently,” Dr. Jackson said.
Jackson said skin to skin contact also helps babies with NAS feel better. Many doctors will also manage NAS symptoms and keep babies comfortable with morphine, which is easy to taper off.
Sometimes, care for a child exposed to drugs, means children go into the foster care system.
“I took in three infants as a foster parent,” Stacy Mays, who lives in Blue Springs, said.
Mays adopted those babies, two of whom were born exposed to drugs.
“It was days and actually months that they faced different things,” Mays said. “Both of mine had GI tract issues that lasted for months. One of them was on medication I had to pick up from Children’s Mercy every week to get the pH balance to settle his stomach because he would projectile vomit. And the other one he would have constipation issues. A lot of those kind of issues were lasting though their first two years.”
Mays relied on a support system of pediatricians and social workers at Foster Adopt Connect, an agency that helps foster families.
“About a third of the kids in foster care nationally come in fully or partially as a result of their parent’s substance use,” Lori Ross, President and CEO of Foster Adopt Connect, said.
Ross, said that’s a big deal for an already over taxed, overburdened foster care system. Worden’s daughter Liliana, was never removed from her custody.
“I will let her know that mommy went through some really tough times and I overcame it with the help of some really cool people,” Worden said. “That’s why she’s got such a good life.”
The life they have together started at the bottom. Police arrested Worden while she was pregnant, and she went to the hospital for a pregnancy related condition. Seven and a half months into her pregnancy, it was her first time getting proper prenatal care.
A worker told her, there was help available.
“She was just like you don’t have to live this way, you don’t have to be like this, you can get your kids back,” Worden said. “It’s not over.”
She started treatment and on March 6, 2017, a few days after she finished rehab, she gave birth to Liliana, a healthy baby girl.
“She was born on time, and she was perfect,” Worden said. “She was really pretty and I was on methadone from that last couple of months. So they had to give her a little bit or morphine for a couple of weeks. But the hospital I was at was trained what to do in that situation.”
Worden and her three daughters live at Amethyst Place, a group that supports women in recovery, and their families. She has a job, she’s in school for social work, goes to NA meetings and doesn’t have any legal trouble. Above all, she has two and a half years of sobriety under her belt.
“This feels to me like the ultimate life,” Worden said. “I’ve been in situations where I’ve had more money. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had more stuff. But I’m pretty taken care of and I have this phenomenal support system. There’s nothing I can’t do when I’m clean. Nothing.”