May 21, 2019

MedStar Helps to Treat Opioids’ Youngest Victims

Youngest Victims

Newborn babies are testing positive for opioids more frequently than ever, and MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital in Leonardtown is working to keep up with the care needed by this epidemic’s youngest victims.

When a mother is about to deliver a child at MedStar St. Mary’s, she undergoes a number of tests before delivering, including a screening for drugs and alcohol. If any of the results are positive, the newborn is also tested.

Jeanne Hill, MSN, RNC, is the director of MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital’s Women’s Health & Family Birthing Center and said that babies born to drug-addicted mothers are the youngest victims of what is still a nationwide crisis and they are not difficult to identify. “They have a high-pitched cry, they can’t calm themselves down, they have tremors, they often have diarrhea and tensed muscles. It is just heartbreaking,” Ms. Hill said.

MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital in Leonardtown is one of 30 birthing centers in Maryland that has joined forces with the Maryland Patient Safety Care Center to standardize care for babies who suffer neonatal abstinence syndrome. While the hospital cares for the babies, mothers are educated about how and where to get help with substance abuse. Ms. Hill said she knows their work is making a difference, but there is still plenty to be done.

Fight the Addiction

St. Mary’s County Health Officer Meenakshi G. Brewster, MD, MPH, said the first step in fighting addiction is for every single person in the community to recognize that it is an illness. “It is a brain disease and it requires an evidenced-based approach to treatment,” said Dr. Brewster. The St. Mary’s County Health Department, the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Department, and MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital are among the many community organizations that are coming together to offer a comprehensive response to this epidemic.

Treating the addictions has become a challenge never before seen, said Kathleen O’Brien, chief executive officer of Walden, which provides crisis, behavioral health, recovery, and trauma recovery services throughout Southern Maryland. “Certainly, here, historically most of our treatment was related to alcohol and a mixture of some other drugs, but prior to about six years ago, we weren’t seeing opioids or heroin as a presenting problem. Now, that is about 70 percent of the primary substance abuse cases coming through our doors.”

Harry Gill, MD, PhD, medical director of behavioral health for MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital and president of Axis Healthcare Group, said the opioid epidemic has become worse because of the prevalence of more lethal synthetic opioids. “Most patients have co-occurring disorders − they have a psychiatric disorder and addiction,” said Dr. Gill. “Going through substance abuse treatment provides temporary relief, but if the psychiatric condition is not treated, relapse is highly likely.”

Dr. Gill said many people who turn to opioids also suffer from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders, all of which can be treated. In working with the hospital, Dr. Gill is called in for psychiatric consultations with patients who are suspected of intentionally overdosing on opioids. Such patients are usually discharged to outpatient substance abuse programs like those provided by Walden, but then may need treatment for co-occurring disorders. Support from family and the community also plays a big role in the recovery process. “Family support is critical because it is such an isolating illness, such an isolating disorder that re-engaging with the world and, in particular, the people who love you unconditionally is a critical component of recovery,” said Dr. Gill.

Change the Conversation

Winning the fight against opioid addiction includes making sure those who are addicted know that help is available and they can receive assistance to access it. Also, the community as a whole must accept that addiction is a disease, not a choice or a moral weakness, said Dr. O’Brien, plus, treatment works and recovery is possible. “This disease doesn’t affect others, it affects all of us, and we all could possibly be afflicted by this disease,” said Dr. O’Brien. “In all my years in doing this, people think it’s the other who gets impacted, but we are all vulnerable.”

For more information and one-click access to a full list of resources available at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital, visit its Leader Page.

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