HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - They are truly innocent victims: babies born dependent on opioids. You've heard all about the national crisis, but it's evident right here in the Valley, starting with the most vulnerable.
"There is definitely a distinctive cry. They cry a lot, just excessive crying. Just very uncomfortable. They tremble, they shake. They will be really stiff. You'll pick them up and they'll be really stiff. Their muscles don't bend really easily," said Dr. Stephanie Israel, a pediatrician.
Videos taken in hospitals around the country show their suffering up close and are hard to watch. They show babies withdrawing from opioids their mothers took while pregnant.
WAFF 48 News was given access to Huntsville Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit.
Israel can describe the symptoms easily because she's seeing them more often.
"Years and years ago, we didn't have this in our NICUs at all," she said.
Now, one in every 10 babies they treat is suffering from withdrawals from either illicit drugs or those that were prescribed.
Nationally, a baby suffering from opiate withdrawal is born every 25 minutes and requires a longer hospital costing $66,000 on average.
Israel said they're not addicted because they haven't chosen to take anything. Their bodies are just dependent on the drug.
When typical babies can leave the hospital the very next day, it's different for those suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS.
"Some babies can stay up to a month, so even if you think that's only 10 babies a month, if they are staying a month, then that's a lot of babies here at the same time," Israel said.
That's where volunteers called "cuddlers" like Liz Smith come in.
"I've held babies for three or four hours. Once you get them to sleep after they've been in that kind of pain, you would never consider if you didn't have to putting them down," said Smith.
Smith, the chief cuddler, has been cuddling babies in the NICU for seven years and has gone through extensive training to comfort NAS babies.
"It's the best volunteer gig there has ever been. What could be more important than holding a precious baby that's sick?" said Smith.
Her effort and many other volunteers have proven to help in treatment the other half is weaning these babies off their drug dependence a little bit at a time. Overall, this process comes without judgment placed on mom.
"People whose babies we treat, it's not just people on the streets who are addicted, what you think of addiction. It can be your next door neighbor. It can be someone who got it for dental pain or back pain. We all understand and are supportive of it and we don't judge the people that we help. I'm hoping now the more attention brought to it, the more people can be educated, the more mothers can be educated." said Israel.
Education is one thing, but there is another component to this and that's intervening when necessary. Medical social workers at the hospital review each case regarding babies born with opiates in their systems. If there is a mother with a prescription or on a pain management regiment, then they verify that.those without a prescription and those that have a child endangerment concern, state agencies are then notified.
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