RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Stephanie Paquette is already planning the perfect first birthday for her little one. It is coming up in May, and there will be a lot to celebrate.
"We're actually having a big carnival," Paquette says with excitement.
Paquette knows her foster baby, who will be referred to as "Joey" throughout this report, has made so many strides in his short life. He has been a part of her family since he was three-weeks-old. Now, she and her husband are in the middle of adopting him, but it could be weeks before it is official.
"The only home he's known is ours," she says.
Joey is just one of 1,085 babies on Medicaid born addicted in the Commonwealth last year, according to the foster and adoption campaign Connecting Hearts in Virginia.
Paquette says Joey was exposed to heroin, amphetamines and cigarettes and spent his first twenty-two days in intensive care, detoxing off the drugs.
"He's been on a number of substances in his short life, and he's had a number of complications because of that," she explains.
Joey now has daily appointments with doctors and therapists. His foster parents, brother and sister are also doing everything they can to tackle his health issues and developmental delays.
So many babies are being born addicted in the Richmond area now that Henrico Doctors' Hospital started a committee six months ago to address the growing problem.
Cheryl Poelma, Director of the NICU and Progressive Care Nursery, is a part of it. "Each baby is individual, and the severity of the withdrawal is individual."
Amber Price, the Henrico Doctors' Vice President of Women's Services and Certified Midwife, says on any given day there is one baby in the hospital's care who is dealing with Neonatal Abstinance Syndrome (NAS). Symptoms like high-pitched crying and tremors show up one to seven days after birth. Early intervention helps, but even then these babies often have a battle ahead.
Babies born addicted to heroin can deal with everything from the pulmonary issues Joey has to liver disease and heart infections. Dr. Ronald Flaster, the Pediatric Hospitalist at Henrico Doctors' Hospital, says they are also at a higher risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and social issues, especially if a mom keeps hiding that she was using during her pregnancy once the baby goes home.
"When he had to get his spinal tap and I was…" Paquette's voice trails off, remembering an especially scary time in July when Joey's health took a turn. "It's just that he's suffering, and it's not his fault. That is really hard."
"It's just that he's suffering, and it's not his fault. That is really hard."
Paquette won't point fingers, though, because she knows addiction can have the firmest grip. Her husband's brother died from a heroin overdose a month before Joey was born. Throughout Virginia, heroin overdoses have risen 165% in the last two years, affecting people from all walks of life, including moms.
"The families often don't know that they're using drugs, these women don't talk about it," Price states. "It's a secret, and then when they get pregnant we have a problem."
Price says it is why the new program at Henrico Doctors' treats the babies and their mothers without judgement.
"It's a cascade," Pediatric Hospitalist, Dr. Ronald Flaster, chimes in. "Once you're addicted, it's so hard to do this by yourself, so you really need intervention."
Dr. Flaster says the hospital does everything it can to keep the babies with their moms. Some, like Joey, however, find foster families.
"People say all the time, ‘Oh, I don't know how you do it,' and I say honestly, there is no amount of effort that wouldn't be worth it," says Paquette.
Joey takes seven doses of medicine every day when he is healthy and thirteen when he is sick. Through it all, Paquette only sees progress.
"Anytime there's even a little milestone, it's a big deal," she smiles at Joey.
It typically takes about six months to wean these babies off their addictive drugs. Paquette says Joey is well past that plateau, so now she is focused on the future.
"We're going to just have a birthday/adoption/welcome to the family party, so we're pretty excited," she looks forward to that day in May.
Paquette's mom was adopted, and her husband was raised by his aunt and uncle after his mother passed away. Paquette knows it only made sense for the two of them to open their hearts and home to Joey, and she says he is now the one giving them the biggest gift.
According to Dr. Tiffany Kimbrough, a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU, that health system is also caring for these babies. Out of the 3,000 births at VCU Medical Center in 2014, there were seventeen newborns who required medical treatment for neonatal withdrawal due to maternal drug use.
8News also reached out to Bon Secours Richmond Health System. Dr. William Azie, Medical Director of the St. Mary's Emergency Department, says, "We are definitely seeing an increase in opiates dependency and addiction in the adult population in general. This is consistent with a nationwide trend, but we do not keep statistics in our ED. I also suspect that there is an increased number of pregnant patients addicted to opiates, but we encounter a limited number of these patient populations in our ED."
Dr. William Azie also says, "We are working currently on a community-wide project and in conjunction with the three major health systems in the area on a program designed to educate patients on the danger of narcotics and their addictive potential, symptoms of addiction with available resources to help fight this rising epidemic for those affected and prescription guidelines for ED providers that will be implemented in all ED's in the area to help curb the reliance on these drugs. These efforts are also vetted by the American College of Emergency Medicine and the AMA."