The birth of a baby can be the happiest moment of any parent's life. In Northeast Ohio though, it can also be a tragic reminder of the region’s ongoing heroin crisis.
Babies are born to mothers addicted to the drug and as a result, the newborns are dependent on heroin as well. But the answer to this problem is one found in all of our arms. Cuddling is a part of the recipe to help bring these babies to normalcy. As a result, hundreds of volunteers in Northeast Ohio have taken on the role of coddling these newborns.
"My son was born 1 pound 14 ounces. I had him at 4 and a half months. He had a lot of issues and I know it was my fault,” Crystal Cook said.
Cook had two of her six kids while she was addicted to heroin. Stories, like hers, are playing out in hospitals across Northeast Ohio.
“When they're born, they can start to have a number of side effects including seizures,” said Dr. Jonathan Franaroff, the Co-Director Neonatal Unit at University Hospital’s Rainbow Children's Hospital.
At UH Rainbow Children's Hospital, this has become an alarming trend. Franaroff says he's seeing more babies born drug dependent than ever before.
Last year, 447 babies were born in Cuyahoga County, exposed to drugs or alcohol, county officials said. That's a 14 percent increase in babies born exposed to opiates from the year before. In 2015, 439 children were born exposed to drugs or alcohol. A huge spike from one year earlier, when 330 children were born exposed.
These babies are born more irritable, have difficulty feeding and gaining weight. Sleeping is also a struggle for them and seizures can be common. All side-effects of withdrawals from the drug they grew dependent to inside the womb.
“It’s heartbreaking. It’s absolutely heartbreaking and we’ve seen this as an epidemic in this country and in Ohio,” Franaroff said.
“You’ll see tremors, irritability, a high pitched cry, almost like a scream,” said Mary Slusher, a NICU Nurse at Metro Health.
For 11 years, Slusher has been the hands that hold NICU newborns. She works directly with the mothers going through addiction and recovery and their babies, like two month old Daniel, still experiencing methadone withdrawals.
“I would see this and then I would get angry and then I decided that that’s not who I am and as a nurse, that’s not your role as a nurse, you can’t bring in your own judgements,” said Slusher.
There is one remedy though that even the strongest medicine can’t provide.
“It’s just such a gratifying job,” said Chris Baumhauer, a Metro Health NICU “Cuddler.”
Metro Health was the first Cleveland hospital to offer an infant comforter program. Volunteers, like Baumhauer have been cuddling, coddling, and comforting newborns for years.
“I came in a little concerned that what I did for them might not work, might not be effective,” said Baumhauer.
Fearful her touch would provide only momentary relief to their suffering, she realized even that is enough.
“Most often, the baby being held, gets comfort within the first few minutes,” she said.
Doctors know there are necessities to help these newborns through their withdrawals: Morphine, to wean them off, a calm, quiet environment, and perhaps most importantly, a comforting whisper, the vibration of a beating heart, and the touch of a human hand.
“I mean I can’t think of anything that’s probably more important or helpful than comforting a child who is ill,” Baumhauer said.
The Infant Comforter Program is so popular among volunteers, that there is waiting list more than a year long. There are so many volunteers that many only get to cuddle once or twice a month. Of all the nurses, doctors, and volunteers we interviewed though, all hope the heroin crisis is one day at a level, where this program will no longer be a necessity.