A Gift for Babies’ Sake

Posted on Mar 27, 2018

Kerri with her 6-month-old, Elijah James

Kerri didn’t like the way people looked at her when they realized she was using drugs while pregnant.

She was upset when she was shunned from an obstetrician’s office when Percocet, an addictive and often abused pain reliever, showed up in her system. She started with drugs years ago, first for back pain, later while mourning her brother and other times to deal with a life with too much trauma.

But realizing she was eight months pregnant, Kerri sought help, visiting a methadone clinic in St. Petersburg, Florida, and beginning the process of getting drugs out of her system.

The number of mothers like Kerri is growing exponentially. In 2016, according to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, 4,215 babies were born in Florida with exposure in the womb to addictive drugs or medicine, a condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). That is a 69 percent increase over the year before. Hillsborough County led the state with 579 NAS babies, Pinellas County was No. 6 (176) and Sarasota County No. 15 (114).

Now, a generous, anonymous $2.5 million gift to the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Maternal, Fetal & Neonatal Institute seeks to help these women and their babies. The hospital will use the transformational donation to build on a foundation laid by work at its NAS Specialty Clinic in Sarasota, which opened in 2013 through a gift from the same anonymous donor in conjunction with the Sarasota Guild. The new donation will allow the hospital to add a similar clinic on the main campus in St. Petersburg and expand its clinical, educational, research and advocacy effort for NAS babies.

Kerri hopes to be a part, to help others. Her 6-month-old, Elijah James, was born at Bayfront Baby Place and spent nine days in the Johns Hopkins All Children’s neonatal intensive care unit. He only had minor withdrawal symptoms after birth, and so far, Kerri’s past drug use has had little impact on his development.

She feels lucky.

‘More Than the Diagnosis’

Katie Wooten, B.S.N., R.N., remembers when she was extremely judgmental about moms like Kerri. She was a patient care technician at Johns Hopkins All Children’s, and she wondered how a mother could expose her child to drugs.

A colleague pulled her aside and suggested they spend some time at Operation PAR, which provides treatment and services in nearby Pinellas Park for those affected by substance abuse and mental health issues. The experience changed Wooten’s perspective.

“You start to hear people’s stories and realize that as a kid, no one wants to become an addict,” Wooten says. “That gave them a voice. One day totally changed how I felt about the people and families affected.

“These kids are much more than the diagnosis. They are babies. They are part of families. We need to be mindful of that.”

Now Wooten, whose position is funded by the donation, will guide families impacted by the opioid crisis to expert follow-up care as nurse coordinator of the Johns Hopkins All Children’s NAS Specialty Clinic in St. Petersburg, collaborating with the team in Sarasota to establish and follow best practices in clinical work and gathering research information. She will work with families of babies born at 35 weeks or more gestation who have been exposed to certain types of medicines or drugs in the womb, including methadone, prescription medications, heroin and others. In addition to Wooten, a dedicated team consisting of pediatricians, a nurse practitioner, a neurodevelopment psychologist, occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy will evaluate and support affected babies’ development with follow-up through age 5.

“This philanthropy is helping us recruit the right staff and bridge all the gaps,” says Prabhu Parimi, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Maternal, Fetal & Neonatal Institute. “We are looking at the needs of the mother and baby and working with the community to meet those needs.

“Relationship building is key. That’s what Katie does.”

‘I Can Help’

Kerri visits the methadone clinic daily, receiving medication therapy to gradually wean her off the opioids. She is taking classes and hopes to become a drug counselor.

Wooten is recruiting her to be a peer mentor for the NAS program in St. Petersburg.

“I think I can definitely help them through it,” Kerri says. “I can completely empathize with them and give them hope.”