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Heroin-addicted babies and moms are heartbreaking

Dr. Carolyn Milana of Stony Brook University Hospital

Dr. Carolyn Milana of Stony Brook University Hospital says the rise in babies addicted to opioids is 'dramatic.' Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

Rebecca’s story is heartbreaking, for her, for her baby, and for all of us who read it and wish there were more we could do.

Rebecca is a mom who was addicted to heroin during her pregnancy. Moms everywhere know how difficult pregnancy can be, from the emotional and physical roller coaster to sometimes fleeting doctor visits and, at times, a lack of support from friends, family and others.

Moms know, too, the trying times that come with having a newborn. Rebecca, for one, continued to use heroin after her daughter was born.

“She’d be in the car seat with receiving blankets propped up to her chest, feeding from the bottle on her blanket, while I was on the edge of the tub shooting heroin,” Rebecca recalled.

A year later, Rebecca is fighting to stay clean.

Adding the awful heroin epidemic to the difficulties of pregnancy and birth creates a tragedy that affects not only mom, but her baby as well. The drug is inexpensive and relatively easy to find, and too many young women have become addicted.

The results are horrific. The number of babies born addicted to opiods, including heroin, has skyrocketed, according to state health data analyzed by Newsday reporter Laura Figueroa. In Suffolk County, 171 babies were born with opioids in their systems in 2014, a 105 percent increase from 2009. It’s likely to be just as high or higher this year. Nassau had 53 addicted babies born in the same period. The situation is even worse upstate. In Niagara County, there were 37.9 addicted babies for every 1,000 births, compared with Suffolk’s 11.2.

Officials say these babies are more likely to become addicts when they’re older. There is concern about long-term physical and emotional damage. We must be attentive to that, but right now, we must envelop both moms and babies with support, medical care and love, in the style of Clara Hale, aka Mother Hale, who took in hundreds of drug-addicted babies in Harlem in the 1970s and 1980s.

That was when heroin and crack coccaine were both the scourges, and when drug use was predominately an urban issue that disproportionately affected black moms and their babies. Now, the tragedy has moved to the suburbs, affecting more white women and white babies, and, perhaps, changing our perception of and response to addiction.

There’s no simple answer here, no complete remedy. Every young woman needs the support of educators, friends, family, doctors and others who can try to reach them before they reach for drugs to ease their pain. But that’s not enough to arrest an epidemic that is incredibly hard to stop. Additional drug treatment centers, improved coordination, and a telephone hotline, as discussed during a Suffolk legislature hearing last week, are important steps. But we must start by letting addicted moms know that there is help — and there is a way out.

We hurt for Rebecca, for her baby, and for too many others facing the same battle. We must give all of them the best chance of finding ways back to lives that are healthy, happy and free of drugs.