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Helpless & Hooked: Caring for addicted babies

Posted at 8:00 AM, Jul 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-08 08:00:04-04

LEE COUNTY, Fla. -- Four in Your Corner is digging deeper as we  investigate a troubling trend in Southwest Florida: babies born helplessly hooked on drugs like heroin and cocaine.

Experts say the number of drug addicted babies born in Lee County has skyrocketed up  by a whopping 800% in the past decade.  The withdrawals can be painful or even deadly.

But one woman is filling a critical void in these babies lives.

Mary Popovich has been a faithful volunteer at the Lee Memorial NICU for years.  "I've been squirted on, pooped on, thrown up on...they do everything, and I still love them."

Her "love" has made her a critical caretaker for many babies in Lee County born dependent on drugs.  "They're dealing with something they didn't know they were going to have to deal with, so they need love."

The number of newborns with a drug addiction have skyrocketed; from 2005 to 2010 there was about an 800% increase of babies admitted for drug withdrawal.

"It seems like we're seeing less mothers coming in with Oxycodone dependency or Roxicodone dependency, and more mothers who are coming in with heroin dependency as well as other narcotics," says Dr. Liu with Lee Memorial Hospital.

Narcotics typically available only in hospitals, but seem to be more available on the street.  And most recently, about a 50% increase in the last few years. 

"Really what you're seeing is women of childbearing age becoming dependent on opiates even before they're pregnant."  Dr. Liu says these newborns experience a long list of symptoms, taking about a week for babies to detox from drugs.  "Once you've seen a baby withdrawing, it will be imprinted in your brain.  They tend to be very irritable, inconsolable, their cries tend to be very shrill."

"It has a different tone to it than a normal baby's cry because they're in pain. They're suffering from withdrawal," says Mary.

But she says it's nothing a simple touch can't soothe.  "Particularly when they're crying hard, sometimes you don't pick them up, you pat them on the head, quietly, quietly, quietly."

There's a campaign that will be relaunching in July focused on this specific issue. A key aspect of the "Born Drug Free Florida" campaign is a hotline (1-800-941-1355) for moms to call to get treatment before the child is born.