MHHS volunteers to comfort drug-addicted babies

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MORRISTOWN, Tenn. (AP) — On Friday, Feb. 14, Morristown-Hamblen Healthcare System is kicking off a new program to help babies born addicted to drugs used by their mothers during pregnancies.

The new volunteers — the Cuddle Crew — will have only one job: to cuddle and rock the babies.

Dawn Poythress, clinical manager of The Women's Center and The Joint and Spine Center at MHHS, explained that these babies are suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome and cry almost constantly. The only thing that seems to help is for them to be held closely and rocked.

The problem comes at night when babies need the extra addition and the nurse on duty doesn't have enough time to take care of all her patients in addition to rocking a baby with NAS.

That's where Cuddle Crew members come in. They will be on call between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. The nurse manager on duty at the time will call a volunteer to come in, as needed.

The process of weaning these infants off drugs is a slow process. Poythress said if the process isn't done properly, babies can suffer fatal seizures.

The baby has to score at least 12 points on the Finnegan Scale, which scores the babies on a number of criteria, on two separate occasions before he or she can be transferred to Children's Hospital in Knoxville. At birth, many NAS babies score poorly. Poythress said it's not unusual for the babies to score as little as zero.

How long this takes depends on the type of drugs the mother is on. Poythress said it's been about a 50/50 mix of prescription medications and street drugs.

Hospitals across Tennessee have had to come up with ways to help these smallest victims of the growing drug problem in the state.

In 2011, there were almost no cases. According to the most recent data from the Tennessee Department of Health, 855 babies were born with NAS during 2013 alone, although those numbers may actually be higher. At MHHS in January 2014, seven babies with NAS were born in a three-day period.

Because physicians have 30 days to report NAS to the state, some babies born in December may not be counted in these statistics provided by TDOH.

Tennessee is believed to be the first state to require real-time reporting of NAS, and 2013 was the first year of mandatory reporting by hospitals. Throughout the year, the state received statistics from 50 different hospitals.

According to the TDOH, in the majority of NAS cases — about 63 percent — at least one of the substances causing NAS was prescribed to the mother by a health care provider.

In the infant, symptoms of NAS can begin within one to three days after birth, or make take five to 10 days to appear, according to the National Institutes of Health. Symptoms depend on the type of drug the mother used.

The goal is to wean the baby off the drug and relieve withdrawal symptoms.

Rocking, reducing noise and lights and swaddling the baby are known to help.

Cuddle Crew volunteers must undergo criminal background checks and drug testing. They then must take the one-day orientation training. Once they complete the process, they are eligible to volunteer in any department in the hospital where volunteers are used.

Volunteers who have already completed the background checks and orientation process will begin as Cuddle Crew members on Feb. 14. The official kick-off for new Cuddle Crew members is March 1.

Orientation takes place every other Monday. MHHS is the first hospital in the Covenant Health family to institute this type of program.

The new program was mentioned one Sunday at First Baptist Church in Morristown and is receiving an overwhelming response.

During a meeting at the hospital, Poythress mentioned a similar program at Children's Hospital. Within 12 hours, the basic idea for the program had been put together.

"It all just fell into place," said Leigh Sempkowski, marketing manager at MHHS.

But even she was surprised by the number of people who've shown in interest in helping MHHS' littlest, sickest patients.

It's not surprising, though, that folks would line up for the opportunity to rock the babies.

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Information from: Citizen Tribune, http://www.citizentribune.com

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