NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - A disturbing trend witnessed nationwide is a pressing issue for medical experts in New Hanover County: drug addicted infants.
Now, more than ever, babies born on opioids like heroin and heavy-duty pain medications are filling the incubators at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at New Hanover Regional Medical center, struggling just to make it through each night.
Doctor Robert Digiuseppe, a Neonatologist at NHRMC, said the numbers have significantly increased over the past five years and especially in the last two years. He said in 2009-2010, the NICU treated approximately 35 babies a year, but in the last two years those numbers have spiked to 85 or 90; 15 percent of babies admitted to the NICU.
He attributes the spike to the proliferation of heavy prescription medication addictions across the country.
"For a while we [the medical community] lost control of it. We were prescribing too many pain medications and getting people hooked," Digiuseppe said. "It's not just a problem we're seeing here locally, it's a global problem."
Synonymous with adult addicts, newborns undergo painful side effects of withdrawal that if not treated, can lead to severe seizures. Symptoms include fussiness, irritability, a baby unable to sooth, unable to calm. They can become so rattled or upset that they're unable to even take a bottle or breastfeed to get the nutrients they need.
Digiuseppe said the process to diagnose an infant with withdrawal is subjective and difficult to monitor.
"It's not like when you take a temperature and know if you have a fever. It's not like you can look at a blood sample and say, 'Yes you have an infection or no, you don't,'" Digiuseppe explained. "It's dependent on the timing and who's doing the observation on the baby to determine if a baby is withdrawing."
The decrease variations in monitoring results, the medical team in the NICU meets regularly to ensure everyone is on the same page resulting in accurate diagnoses and proper treatment for their tiny patients.
Rebecca Lilly was battling a heroin addiction when she found out she was pregnant with her first baby.
"In the background was the addiction," Lilly said about the moment she found out she was expecting a child. "It wasn't my first [thought] and then I realized, 'wow, I'm not really in a position to take care of a child. What do I do?'"
A motherly instinct kicked in, and Lilly said she immediately reached out for medical help. She was ready to stop her addiction for good, but doctors told her if she went through withdrawals she could risk losing the pregnancy.
They began monitoring her dosages, knowing nine months later, she would give birth to an addicted son.
"All of a sudden he just started screaming this horrible, horrible scream that I've never heard come out of a little boy," recalled Lilly of the painful withdrawals her son underwent during his first weeks of life. "It terrified me."
After 28 days of treatment, Lilly and her son finally returned home with a clean slate both from the hospital and the law system, because there's nothing on North Carolina law books criminalizing mothers of addicted infants.
"In North Carolina, our child abuse states are mainly geared towards physical injury, serious bodily injury," Assistant District Attorney Lance Oehrlein explained.
Oehrlein said addicted infants typically don't qualify as "serious bodily injury," because it takes years for the effects of the drugs to surface, making any case nearly impossible to prove.
"It's something you'd have to be able to track over the course of many months or years. Then, you'd have to find someone to say the substance abuse by the mother was the direct cause of this injury," Oehrlein said. "It's just hard to prove and there's not really a statue right now in our criminal statutes that address the problem that you're seeing."
Oehrlein said finding one law that would be equally effective for both parties, mom and baby, would be difficult to create.
"A lot of states are gun-shy about [a law] because they don't want to prevent women from accessing prenatal care," Oehrlein said.
Women like Rebecca Lilly, who is grateful for the second chance to raise her son.
"I'm a normal mother. I live a normal live, but I definitely struggled with a dark past," Lilly explained.
Tennessee is the only state in the country with a law making it illegal for expectant mothers to abuse drugs.
North Carolina legal officials said it is possible North Carolina will never follow suit.
The issue of drug addicted infants won't disappear anytime soon, but NHRMC hospital employees, social workers, and rehabilitation centers are working to decrease the number of cases. They collaborate monthly to find ways to improve medical care and educate women before pregnancy.