Children’s hospital seeks to create special unit for babies born addicted to drugs

Published 8:24 am Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Graphic provided by the Centers for Disease Control
With the number of babies born addicted to drugs in the region reaching epidemic levels, the Niswonger Children’s Hospital is hoping to create a special unit dedicated to caring for babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS).
On Monday, the Mountain States Foundation announced it is beginning a fundraising project to create the new unit, which is estimated to cost nearly $500,000. Fundraisers dedicated to the new NAS unit will include the Mountain States Foundation Spirit Gala and car raffle, and the Niswonger Children’s Hospital Radiothon.
“Substance abuse is a widespread problem in our region, and unfortunately, one of the consequences of maternal addiction is babies who are very sick and need specialized care,” said Lisa Carter, CEO of Niswonger Children’s Hospital. “We recognize that caring for these newborns needs to occur in a setting more specialized than a traditional NICU setting in order to meet the needs of both the babies and their families.”
NAS occurs when babies are born addicted to prescribed medications or illegal substances that the mother has used during pregnancy. These newborns may need to stay in the hospital longer than other full term babies and often face serious medical and developmental problems, both at birth and later on as they grow up.
A few days after being born, the baby goes into withdrawal, a painful and uncomfortable process that can last from days to months. The babies often have a distinctive cry, and may suffer from agitation, gastrointestinal problems and high sensitivity to light and noise.
“Babies with NAS have special needs,” said Krista Hatley, chief nursing officer at Niswonger Children’s Hospital. “In addition to needing medication and extra attention, they are often very sensitive to noise and light that normally would not distress an infant. Our new private rooms will be quieter, and we will be able to keep the room darker. It’s a more healing atmosphere for a baby with these challenges.”
The envisioned NAS treatment unit would be located in a renovated area adjacent to the current NICU and would be connected to a central monitoring system. The objective of the unit would be to reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms and shorten the amount of time the babies must spend in the hospital.
According to the Tennessee Department of Health, there has been a nearly 15-fold increase in the number of babies born with NAS in Tennessee over the last 10 years, in comparison to a three-fold increase seen nationally). In 2013, a total of 921 cases of NAS were reported in Tennessee, making the statewide rate 11.6 cases per 1,000 births.
Data for the individual regions of the state is divided into health department service regions. Sullivan County led the state 54.7 NAS cases per 1,000 births followed by the Northeast Region (comprised of Carter, Washington, Johnson, Unicoi, Greene, Hawkins and Hancock Counties) with a rate of 41.6 per 1,000 births.
According to information from Mountain States Health Alliance, pain medications and anxiety or sleep medicines are the most common medications that cause NAS, but other drugs, both legal and illegal, may also be the cause. A report by the Centers for Disease Control regarding NAS cases in 2013 in Tennessee confirms that more cases of NAS were due to prescription medications than illegal drugs such as methamphetamine, heroine or cocaine. The report also notes that in come cases, the baby was born detoxing from multiple substances.
The CDC study found that in 46.4 percent of NAS cases, a supervised replacement therapy medicine such, as Methadone or Suboxone, was one of the contributing substances. Replacement therapy medications contributed to more cases of NAS that any other substance according to the CDC report. Prescription medications obtained without a legitimate prescription was a contributing substance in 40.2 percent of NAS cases. Non-prescription substances, such as illegal drugs, were a contributing substance in 27.4 percent of NAS cases.
While pregnant women may be using medicine prescribed to them appropriately, the use of those medications can still lead to their baby being born suffering from NAS according to the CDC and information from MSHA.
The CDC report notes that in 19 percent of NAS cases, the mother was undergoing supervised pain therapy treatment and in 7.4 percent of cases the baby was born detoxing from medicine used to treat the mother’s for a psychiatric or neurologic condition.
Fundraising events to support the NICU renovations at Niswonger Children’s Hospital include:
• The Spirit Gala is an annual black-tie social event to raise funds for Niswonger Children Hospital. The 2016 Spirit Gala will be on Saturday, January 23 at 5:30 p.m. at the Millennium Centre in Johnson City. This year’s event features an after-party with an “Out of Africa” theme in addition to a performance by Endless Summer. For more information or to purchase tickets, contact Tiffany Willis at 423-302-3131 or
• For the past nine years, Champion Chevrolet Cadillac has donated the grand prize for the Mountain States Foundation Car Raffle. Proceeds from the raffle benefit Niswonger Children’s Hospital. This year the winning ticket holder will have a choice of one of the following vehicles from Champion: 2016 Chevrolet Traverse, 2015 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Double Cab, or a 2015 Cadillac ATS. There are also three cash prizes – for $2,500, $1,500 and $1,000 – to be drawn after the grand prize-winning ticket has been selected. Tickets are on sale with 3,000 available for purchase at $50 apiece. The winning ticket will be drawn on Jan. 23, 2016, at the annual Spirit Gala. The winner does not need to be present to win. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 423-302-3131.
• Radiothon 2016 for Niswonger Children’s Hospital will be on February 29 and March 1. Radiothon airs on Holston Valley Broadcasting Group stations throughout Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. Tune in to hear stories of the many kids who have benefitted from the exceptional care and love they receive at Niswonger Children’s Hospital. Volunteers are needed to staff the Radiothon. For more information or to learn how your business partnership could benefit from radio advertising during Radiothon, contact Marsha Hammond at 423-302-3181 or

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