UPDATE 1/11/12 @ 8:30 p.m.
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Pregnant and addicted -- while they're two words that should never go together, they're now coupled as perhaps our region's most serious, high-risk medical problem.
At times, up to half the mothers-to-be on some area maternity wards are hooked on drugs -- mostly pain pills.
WSAZ.com's Randy Yohe recently exposed this tragic epidemic in a WSAZ investigation.
And now, he's reporting on a breakthrough medical response -- the opening of a precedent-setting maternal addiction and recovery clinic.
Among some of the things uncovered in the investigation:
It took a medical, academic and private sector team to open the maternal addiction and recovery clinic on Cabell Huntington Hospital's campus.
But with at least a fifth of all maternity ward women there addicted -- the need was overwhelming. Doctors say the results for mother and baby are proving to be lifesaving.
Doctors say that with appropriate care, they can save lives and have better outcomes -- along with decreasing the risk of birth problems and keeping babies born from addiction or minimizing their recovery from addiction.
"This is not a drug abuse clinic," clinic co-director Dr. David Chaffin said. "We will take care of these drug addicted mothers. They have a disease. We will treat them like other high-risk patients.”
Carelink Health Insurance has provided $50,000 in clinic start-up money. It saw many of its 90,000 West Virginia customers -- many on Medicaid -- in desperate need.
Clinic staffers expect to quickly reach their 60 pregnant and addicted patient capacity. Another goal is to educate medical students and residents about treating addiction -- treatment doctors say is proven to work.
“This allows babies to not be in the hospital, to not have as hard of a withdrawal," Chaffin said.
Clinic treatment also requires fewer medications to manage that withdrawal after the babies are born.
A crucial component of this medical clinic is the extensive counseling offered during -- and very importantly -- after the pregnancy.
This clinic is open to all.
In its first few weeks, women are coming in from all over West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southern Ohio.
And the treatment team hopes this course of action for pregnant addicted women and the newborn babies trends across the region.
That's because up to half the pregnant women ready to give birth are also addicted to hard-core drugs.
The epidemic has the medical, the treatment and the legal communities working in crisis mode -- all to rescue the lives of mothers and children, before the babies are even born.
WSAZ.com has an in-depth investigation that, in some cases, creates more questions than answers. That's because no one really knows the long-range effects of addicted newborns.
We learned firsthand that from pain pills overwhelming the maternal instinct to addicted moms delivering clean babies, the problems, challenges and responses are all immense.
Amber Lutz took a vow. “I promise, little guy, that I’m going to be the best mom I can be and that you never see the world of addiction," she said.
She was making a promise to her 4-week-old son, Noah, the recovering heroin addict is one of many addicted pregnant mothers on waiting lists to enter the Portsmouth Stepping Stones facility.
Stepping Stones is an intense inpatient treatment center for addicted women.
With so many arriving with a life-and-death craving addiction,
Lutz spoke of her struggle with heroin.
“It consumed my thoughts and desires," she said. "I yearned for it, even while pregnant.”
Fellow mother Brittney Major also shared her story. Before delivering her now 12-day-old son Kion while at Stepping Stones, she lived with a mother's terrifying fear.
“I was scared that Children’s Services would take him, that he would die in the womb, that I would go to jail for child endangerment," Major said.
Dr. David Chaffin, a physician at Cabell Huntington Hospital, said, “My residents are not happy about learning to manage it, but it's more common that diabetes or blood pressure or any other problem.”
Doctors say pregnant addicted moms know how to "game" the system and know more about metabolism than the doctors.
Dr. Renee Dominico, a physician at Cabell Huntington Hospital, said, "These addicted babies have difficulty breathing and eating. They get belly cramps, diarrhea, fevers -- can't gain weight -- the baby is in pain."
Doctors say the withdraw symptoms of an addicted newborn can at times continue for months.
On a given day at Southern Ohio Medical Center in Portsmouth, Ohio, and at Cabell Huntington Hospital -- just to name two -- from 10 to 50 percent of women on the maternity wards are addicted to opiates.
And, medical professionals say another 10 to 20 percent are in for complications such as being premature and having anatomical defects -- things that are a consequence of the drug withdrawal as well.
Back at Stepping Stones, it’s amazing to many that Lutz, Major and so many other women who abused opiates while pregnant -- specifically pain pills and heroin -- are leaving clean and sober, with clean babies.
They say the baby will be drug free if the mother stops using drugs in the middle of her pregnancy
But, as doctors and counselors grapple with the overwhelming demand of addicted mothers and their babies today, much of tomorrow is still a mystery.
“No matter how you get them ... into the intensive care unit, do you think that baby's lifestyle will make it a risk for it becoming an addict?" Chaffin said. "I would say so, so the problem is only going to grow.”
On Oct. 1, Southern Ohio Medical Center began drug testing all pregnant women admitted -- something that is not universally done.
Doctors say the combined medical, social and legal costs of caring for addicted newborns runs into hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And all involved here say the biggest stigma is the overwhelming negative judgment of an addicted pregnant woman -- that this is a disease-and-treatment issue that demands help, not punishment.
Cabell Huntington Hospital will soon set up a pre-natal clinic and a dedicated maternity drug ward for addicted expecting mothers.