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Addicted Michigan: Doctor shares concerns about opioid use by pregnant women

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A local doctor shares her concerns over mothers opioid use while pregnant, suggests they seek medical assistance as soon as possible. (WWMT/Sarah White)

A pediatric doctor who delivers babies in West Michigan at Ascension Borgess Hospital said when she was in medical school that she learned very little about delivering opioid-dependent babies.

It didn't seem to be a common issue at that time, but, while it comes in waves, Dr. Christine George said it seems like she's delivering more and more opioid-dependent babies at the hospital she serves exclusively.

"There's always a bit of sadness to it (delivering opioid-dependent babies), but at the same time you just do what you've got to do to take care of the baby and keep them as comfortable as possible so that they can feed and grow and develop, and kind of get past this as much as possible," George said.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse said babies born with an opioid dependency suffer from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome which is caused by maternal opioid use.

The institute estimates that nationally, one baby is born about every 15 minutes whose suffering from opioid withdrawal.

Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services said between 2010 and 2016, doctors diagnosed 5,458 babies born in Michigan with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.

"When a baby is born and is already exhibiting significant withdraw symptoms they're often very bright red. They are just super stiff like as a board, really ridged, their tone is super tight, but they're shaking at the same time and jittery, crying, inconsolable," George said. "Then they start sweating, sucking excessively followed by diarrhea and rashes, excoriations or kind of abrasions on different parts of their body because they're sharking so much things are rubbing and rubbing and rubbing and rubbing."

George said when a baby is exhibiting those types of symptoms, medical staff begins running multiple assessments to determine the severity of the withdrawal.

"If it's severe enough, (medical staff will) potentially start the medications as morphine to help combat some of those withdrawal symptoms," George said.

She said most opioid dependent babies experience the withdrawal symptoms almost immediately.

"What's in mom's body will also go into baby's body when mom is pregnant, but they have this continuous kind of stimulation of those specific parts of their brain during the pregnancy but then when they're born just like that, that's cut off," George said. "So all of a sudden you have this situation where they were getting this drug, medicine that was stimulating certain parts of their brain and then all of a sudden it's gone."

She said there is a correlation to a baby being exposed to substances while in the womb and that baby developing negative short- and long-term developmental outcomes.

Still, George said there can be many factors that play into the outcome of the child's health, including their environment.

"They still need to be loved and cared for and brought up in an environment where they are not surrounded by continued substance use," George said. "If they can be brought up in loving homes, that can potentially help mitigate at least some negative consequences."

She said it's important for pregnant women living with an opioid dependency to be honest with their medical professionals and seek prenatal care.

"Go to (your) doctor and be very direct. Don't try to hide it because honestly that's probably the worst thing you could do for you and your baby," George said. "There are things can that can be done to either potentially eliminate or at least reduce the severity of any kind of long term effects if you get the right care."

Resources for women living with an opioid dependency: