Rough start smoothed for drug babies


Staff writer

Infants swaddled in pink or blue cotton blankets slept peacefully in their cribs at the Pediatric Interim Care Center in Kent as volunteers and nurses moved around them deftly, speaking in hushed voices.

Soft light filtered through the windows and filled the nursery rooms where the babies –– 14 in all –– slept in their blanket cocoons.

In a crib near the wall, a girl slept hooked to a respiratory monitor. She was given a small dose of morphine, a respiratory depressant, to ease her through withdrawals from heroin.

In a darkened, quiet room across the hall, a mother rocked her baby, who was born too sensitive to all forms of stimulus to lie in the cribs in the lighted rooms with the other infants.

The pediatric center opened its doors more than 10 years ago to serve as a haven for drug-addicted babies who no longer need hospital care, but are still too sick to go home. Most stay about a month to allow the drugs to leave their bodies and to allow their nervous systems to get accustomed to the stimulation babies encounter: Light, sounds, chilly air and warm baths.

Barbara Drennen, co-creator and executive director of the center, said staff lately have been seeing a run of babies born addicted to opiates, particularly oxycodone, the active ingredient in the painkiller Oxycontin.

They also see babies addicted to cocaine, methamphetamine and psychotropic drugs, like Prozac or Dilantin. But most of the babies who come into the center have been exposed to a multiplicity of drugs.

“Rarely do any of our babies have less than five drugs in them,” Drennen said.

A baby born addicted to drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine withdraws differently than a baby born addicted to an opiate. But they all are hyper-sensitive to lights and sounds and tactile things like air or water or cloth on skin.

All the babies like to be swaddled and contained. For opiate-addicted babies, it keeps them from shaking.

Babies born addicted to heroin have withdrawals similar to those experienced by adult heroin addicts. They have body tremors which they try to control by making their limbs rigid.

When they can’t control the shaking, they inhale and let out a broken, high-pitched shriek healthcare workers refer to as a cat-cry. Their bodies become mottled from hyperventilating and, without medication, they could have seizures or strokes.

Case manager Donna Ellis said heroin-addicted mothers are typically the most cooperative with the center because the babies’ withdrawals look so much like their own. “They just say, ‘Here, fix my baby,’” Ellis said.

While the heroin-addicted babies have more obvious signs of withdrawal, the cocaine- or methamphetamine-addicted babies present a more long-term danger because they’re born with a low percentage of body fat and they won’t eat. They don’t know how to suck and they don’t have any appetite. “They’ll drop a bunch of weight,” Ellis said.

They’re docile, sleepy babies who won’t wake up to eat, and if staff members or their mothers wake them, they might only swallow a couple ounces of milk before nodding off again.

Those babies usually stay at the center a longer time because case workers and medical staff want to get their body weights up and make sure they’re eating before they leave.

In addition to low body weights, though, babies born addicted to methamphetamine get diaper rashes that look like third-degree burns on their bottoms because the chemicals in meth are so caustic, they turn the baby’s urine to acid.

But those “typical” symptoms can be inapplicable for many of the center’s charges because most babies there were exposed to several drugs, as well as alcohol and cigarettes, officials said.

A baby exposed to both opiates and methamphetamine could have the cat-cries and tremors of a heroin baby and refuse to eat like a cocaine baby, or he could eat normally like a heroin baby, but not experience the tremors.

“No one can tell you what the baby will look like until he’s here,” Ellis said. “Quite often, we don’t know what all the baby was exposed to.”

When a baby is admitted to the center, a caseworker takes the infant’s file to monitor how the mother interacts with the baby — if she interacts at all. Last year, more babies went into foster care than went home with their mothers.

Drennen opened the Pediatric Interim Care Center in the early 1990s, but the framework on which it would be modeled started decades before in her own home and the home of a friend.

Drennen and Barbara Richards were foster parents for 30 years, the last 10 of which they both began noticing weird behavior patterns and issues in the children they were taking.

Cocaine was becoming a big drug at the time, but the women didn’t yet know the children they were seeing were exposed to the drug before they were born.

Both women called around to local hospitals, but they didn’t find much help there. Hospital staffs were just as stumped, so Drennen and Richards began treating the children’s symptoms empirically.

In the late 1980s, doctors approached Drennen to enhance what she was already doing in her home to care for babies born exposed to or addicted to drugs.

Last year, the center provided care for 151 babies. In the 12 years since the center opened its doors, 1,368 infants have lied in the cribs, swaddled in blankets, withdrawing from drugs. Fifty-one babies withdrew — mostly opiates — in the first three months of this year.

In four months, the center saved taxpayers about $2 million, according to center statistics. It costs about $150 a day to let the babies withdraw from drugs at the care center, compared to between $2,700 and $3,700 a day to stay in the hospital.

The center uses more than 100 volunteers who do everything from cuddle and swaddle the babies to clean and make sure supplies are stocked. Everything in the center, the cribs and blankets and tables and chairs, was donated.

Still, the center is cringing against the threat of serious state budget cuts from the Legislature this year. Center spokeswoman Pam Huffman said lawmakers could end up doing one of three things: Cut funding for the center entirely, put the center under the auspices of the Department of Social and Health Services, or fund it as a line item in the budget.

Center officials have planned for $1.11 million in revenue from public sources and private donations and grants. They plan to spend $1.06 million on continuing the program, paying salaries (social workers, nurses, nurses aides and office workers) and raising money.

As 14 babies slowly recover within the comforting walls of the center, the staff is collectively holding its breath. “We won’t know until June,” Huffman said.

Staff writer Erica Jahn: 925-5565,

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