Nursery Treats Meth Babies, Helps Addicted Moms

A nursery in Kent, Wash., aims to help new mothers addicted to methamphetamine deal with their babies' special needs. As Patricia Murphy of member station KUOW reports, the babies are reluctant to nurse, lack muscle tone and can develop painful sores.

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Hospitals across the country are feeling the effects of methamphetamine, not only in emergency rooms, but in delivery rooms. Not much is known about the long-term effects of prenatal exposure to meth. Research, like the young victims, is in its infancy. But we do know that the estimated thousands of meth-addicted babies born each year in the US require a lot of care. Patricia Murphy of member station KUOW in Seattle profiles one woman who has made caring for these newborns her life's work.

PATRICIA MURPHY reporting:

Dressed in a denim pinafore and a neatly starched blouse, Barbara Drenin(ph) looks like the perfect mother. She oozes empathy, the kind that makes you want to show her your scraped knee just so that you can get a hug and a cookie. For 40 years, Drenin's maternal instincts have led her to foster children in need, but her mission since the early '80s has called her to care for some of the most vulnerable: babies born addicted to drugs.

Ms. BARBARA DRENIN (Foster Mother): This was a labor of love. It wasn't anything I would have ever dreamt that I would ever do.

MURPHY: But she saw a need, she says. These infants were being cared for in the hospital and Drenin thought she could offer a more nurturing environment in her home. She began fostering these special-needs babies. The work was overwhelming. And then the state stepped in and said she needed a license to do it.

(Soundbite of babies crying)

MURPHY: With that, the Pediatric Interim Care Center in Kent, Washington, was born.

Unidentified Woman: She's not happy.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

MURPHY: It's a one-of-a-kind facility in the nation. The center has a staff of doctors, nurses and assistants who handle 15 newborns at a time. All the infants are brought to her through the Department of Social and Health Services. There's always a wait list.

(Soundbite of baby)

MURPHY: Large, white cribs and pastel blankets make this halfway house for newborns feel more like a home nursery. But these infants require specific care. They can have any number of drugs in their system.

A tiny baby coos. She's barely five pounds and is tightly swaddled in a soft pink blanket.

Ms. DRENIN: This is a little one that just came in earlier this week, and she's prenatally exposed to methamphetamines.

MURPHY: Drenin's eyes soften as she adjusts her new charge's blanket.

Ms. DRENIN: This is basically what you see with a methamphetamine baby, a baby that just is soft and cuddly and pink. You're not going to see tremors or irritability. You see just a sweet little baby.

MURPHY: While this little baby may not present as dramatically as those born addicted to cocaine or opiates, her seeming contentment is deceptive. She and others like her won't wake to feed. When she is offered a bottle, she will need a tremendous amount of coaxing just to take in an ounce or two. Feeding is just one of the challenges of dealing with a meth-exposed baby. In recent years, Drenin has noticed her newborns are suffering from painful sores because of what she believes are the more toxic chemicals being used to make meth.

Ms. DRENIN: What we see the first two weeks of life is--the drugs are excreting out of their skin. We'll see the bottom become very excoriated and often have open wounds and bleeding, and they could be as big as a quarter, and their little bottom isn't much bigger than a quarter.

MURPHY: It's a disturbing image; one that keeps Drenin and her staff on task. Most of the infants at the center will stay two weeks, just long enough to detox and for the parents, often still using drugs, to get a crash course in caring for them.

Ms. DRENIN: As they come in we slowly teach them all the identifying characteristics of drug withdrawal, teach them how to sway with their baby, how not to talk into their face, the different stimuli that is overwhelming and what the baby can't handle.

MURPHY: Drenin is careful to point out that she doesn't judge the parents she and her staff work with. While she accepts the reality that she is sending infants back into a potentially precarious situation, she tries not to think about it too often.

Ms. DRENIN: Because we don't have any say where the children go, I try not to focus on that, mainly because it's such a huge picture. And if I focus on the total picture, I couldn't do this job.

MURPHY: There's so much need for Drenin's services the non-profit is expanding. With donations, they've begun construction on a new $4 million home with enough room for 27 infants at a time. For NPR News, I'm Patricia Murphy in Seattle.

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