When an expectant mother arrives at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital, she willundergo a variety of tests prior to delivering, including a screening for drugsand alcohol. If a mother’s results are positive, her newborn child will also betested.

“We are seeing episodes of babies testing positive for opioids much morefrequently than several years ago,” said Jeanne Hill, MSN, RNC, director ofMedStar St. Mary’s Hospital’sWomen’s Health & Family Birthing Center.Babies born to drug-addicted mothers are the youngest victims of whatcontinues to be a nationwide crisis and they are not difficult to identify,said Jeanne. “They have a high-pitched cry, they can’t calm themselves down,they have tremors, they often have diarrhea and tensed muscles,” she said. “Itis just heartbreaking.”

MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital is among 30 birthing centers in Maryland joining forces with theMaryland Patient Safety Care Centerto standardize care for babies suffering neonatal abstinence syndrome. As part of the hospital’sefforts, mothers are presented withinformation about how and where to gethelp with substance abuse. AlthoughJeanne feels their work is making adifference, there is still plenty to be done.

Fighting the Addiction

“We need every single person in thecommunity to recognize addiction isan illness, it is a brain disease and itrequires an evidenced-based approach totreatment,” saidMeenakshi G. Brewster,MD, MPH, St. Mary’s County Health Officer.The Health Department, MedStar St. Mary’sHospital and Sheriff’s Department areamong the many community organizationscoming together to offer a comprehensive response to this epidemic. “It is a challenge like we have never seenbefore in the treatment community,” saidKathleen O’Brien, PhD, chief executiveofficer ofWalden, which provides crisis, behavioral health, trauma, and recoveryservices to Southern Maryland. “Certainly,here, historically most of our treatment wasrelated to alcohol and a mixture of someother drugs, but prior to about six yearsago, we weren’t seeing opioids or heroin asa presenting problem. Now, that is about70 percent of the primary substance abusecases coming through our doors.”

Harry Gill, MD, PhD, medical directorofBehavioral Healthfor MedStar St.Mary’s Hospital and president ofAxisHealthcare Group, says he believes theopioid epidemic has gotten worse due tothe prevalence of more lethal syntheticopioids.“Most patients have co-occurring disorders ? they have apsychiatric disorder and addiction,” said Dr. Gill. “Goingthrough substance abuse treatment provides temporary relief,but if the psychiatric condition is not treated, relapse is highlylikely.”

Dr. Gill said many people who turn to opioids also haveanxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders, allof which are treatable. In his work with the hospital, Dr. Gill is called in for psychiatric consultations with patients suspectedof intentionally overdosing on opioids. These patients aretypically discharged to outpatient substance abuse programssuch as those provided by Walden, but often need treatmentfor co-occurring disorders. Support from their family and theircommunity also plays a large role in the recovery process.“Family support is critical because it is such an isolating illness,such an isolating disorder that re-engaging with the world and,in particular, the people who love you unconditionally is acritical component of recovery,” said Dr. Gill.

Changing the Conversation

Winning the battle against opioid addiction means making sure those fighting their addictions know that assistance isavailable and they can receive help to access it. In addition, the community as a whole needs to accept that addiction isa disease, not a choice or a moral weakness, said Dr. O’Brien,and that treatment works and recovery is possible.“This disease doesn’t affect others, it affects all of us, andwe all could possibly be afflicted by this disease,” said Dr.O’Brien. “In all my years in doing this, people think it’s the other who gets impacted, but we are all vulnerable.”