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New Niswonger Unit to Help Babies Born with Drug Dependency

Levi began life with neonatal abstinence syndrome.

But in the two years since Chris Miller adopted him, 2-year-old Levi has made significant progress.

“Levi is doing phenomenal. Early on, he had some visits with therapists and social workers. Now he does some physical and occupational therapy for some of the things he needs but overall, he is phenomenal,” Miller said. “He’s growing like a beast, and just a very happy child.”

Neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS, affects infants experiencing withdrawal from drugs such as opioids, benzodiazepines and illicit drugs such as cocaine passed on from their mothers at birth. It’s a problem with a big impact in Northeast Tennessee due to high rates of addiction and drug abuse.

On Tuesday, the region gained a new tool to use against the syndrome when Mountain States Health Alliance unveiled its new unit in Niswonger Children’s Hospital dedicated to helping children like Levi.

On average, about 30 percent of babies in the neonatal intensive care unit at Niswonger are living with NAS.

Lisa Carter, the CEO of the hospital, said the expansion of services is particularly important for this region, which has surpassed both Memphis and Nashville in NAS rates.

“Unfortunately, NAS and the bigger picture of opioid addiction is continuing to grow throughout our region. Other areas of the state and the country have seen numbers decrease, but sadly, we are not.”

But there is light at the end of the tunnel.

The new facility at Niswonger Children’s Hospital can provide more adequate care for infants struggling with the syndrome.

The professionals who work there have put an emphasis on not only the physical aspects of treatment, but also the social ones.

Dr. Shawn Hollinger, a neonatologist and pediatric physician, said this is particularly important when considering the increase in NAS he has noticed in the region. He said he used to notice one or two infants at any given time receiving treatment for the syndrome before leaving the area for training three years ago.

Now, he sometimes sees up to 12.

He said there are a lot of different factors involved in treating children with NAS. Sometimes, infants born with NAS are so dependant on the drugs that they need treatments involving medication. But one of the key factors is treating each case as unique and individualized.

“Environmental control is a really important part of the treatment. These babies are very sensitive to lights and loud noises, which can increase their symptoms,” Hollinger said. “Having them in this unit really allows us to privatize and individualize the care for these infants.”

Aside from the care he and other doctors offer at Niswonger,Hollinger said it will be important to focus on the social aspects of the syndrome and addiction as well.

“I think when you have a problem (addiction) that’s as bad as it is in this area, it’s not just an individual problem — it’s a regional and community problem, Hollinger said. “I think it speaks loudly that we need to improve our services beforehand to try to prevent people from becoming addicted, as well as helping those who are addicted, especially those of childbearing age.”

Miller, who has experience in health care himself as an associate administrator at Johnson City Medical Center, said education is an important part of getting infants with NAS the care they need. Although the beginning is always scary, taking the right approach both medically and socially is essential.

“It’s a very stressful, uncertain time,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of stigma around NAS that I think our community, or really anybody, should be encouraged to do more research and understand more about it.”

Miller said his son has been able to stay strong in the face of the many obstacles that come with living with NAS despite his uphill climb.

He said it’s thanks to the diligent care of dedicated health care workers like the ones at Niswonger who have not only worked to treat the children, but also provide an atmosphere of compassion rather than anger.

“I do not harbor any ill will towards his mother. It was some decisions she made that put Levi in the situation he’s in, but the way Niswonger has looked at this is that the birth of these children can be a catalyst for the mothers to change,” Miller added.

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