Baptist Medical Center treatment program helps mothers, newborns battle opiate withdrawals

1 in 4 babies in Texas with neonatal abstinence syndrome born in Bexar County

SAN ANTONIO – A program at Baptist Medical Center that helps mothers and newborns battle opiate withdrawals changed the lives of a San Antonio woman and her baby.

Victoria Ortiz's 8-month-old daughter, Gracie, was born fighting withdrawal symptoms from opiates called neonatal abstinence syndrome.

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"When I saw her sick, going through all that pain that I caused her. ... she did nothing to deserve it," Ortiz said.

Ortiz suffered from back pain, for which she took prescription pills.

"I wasn't getting enough for the pain, so I had to get more off the streets," she said. "And then it was harder to find. That's when I found out about heroin." 

Related: The painkiller problem in South Texas

NAS occurs primarily among opioid-exposed infants shortly after birth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Opiate withdrawals differ among babies. Some withdrawal symptoms include tremors, seizures, excessive or high-pitched crying, vomiting and increased sweating.

"San Antonio has the highest rate of NAS in Texas. In fact, it has more NAS cases than Houston and Dallas combined," said John Isaac, medical director of the neonatal intensive care unit at Baptist Medical Center. "One in four babies in Texas that has NAS is born in Bexar County."

According to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, 324 babies receiving Medicaid benefits in Bexar County in 2015 were born with NAS. 

Ortiz's life changed after she found out she was pregnant.

"CPS got involved when she was born. They wanted to take her away," Ortiz said.

Related: By the numbers: Opioid overdose deaths in Bexar County

Suzie Aldous, NICU and NAS director at Baptist Medical Center, got involved in the case and called on resources so that Ortiz could keep her baby.

"We have an orphanage just for babies in San Antonio. And we had three babies in a row that went to that orphanage home because all foster homes were full," Aldous said.

Three years ago, the NAS team decided to change the way they help families.

"There's a window of opportunity that we have with the mother to enhance the bonding," Isaac said. "We try not to separate the baby from the mom if they are clinically stable. So the babies get to stay with the mother until it comes a time in which the babies need to get on medication or showing some kind of clinical symptom that the baby needs NICU care."

"Last year, 85 percent of our moms that came went into a treatment program," Aldous said.

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The NAS program encourages mothers and babies to stay together.

"We put babies skin to skin with mom and keep them as long as possible," Aldous said, adding that they have been successful in getting babies through the withdrawal process without medications by keeping babies skin to skin with mom and dad.

"For the last couple of years, we have been involved with different collaboratives where we see that we have to change the way we approach these babies," Isaac said. "Mainly, (the goal is) to engage the families in the care of the babies ... encourage bonding early on, trying to separate the mothers and babies as little as possible, encourage a safe discharge."

The program "also encourages kangaroo care and breast feeding (and) has gone a long way." 

The program also has volunteers who spend time rocking babies withdrawing from opiates.

Ortiz and her baby were moved to the NAS home, also known as the Restoration Center, an inpatient facility for mothers and children who need 24-hour supervision.

Ortiz has now been sober for eight months and hopes to continue living a healthy life.

"She's big and starting to stand up and crawling and stuff. We are doing really good because of the restoration home," Ortiz said.

Phase 5 of the program will be launched Aug. 1. Phase 5 allows mothers who are in treatment programs and are stable to stay in the room with their infants even if they are on medications for withdrawals.

To find substance-abuse treatment services in your area, call 1-877-966-3784 for immediate and confidential help, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Click here to learn more about the NAS program.

About the Author:

Tiffany Huertas is known for her in-depth storytelling and her involvement with the community.