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How To Save A Newborn Drug Addict

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Nurse Kelly Denheyer cuddles a baby at PICC (photo by Rachel Belle)
The babies I saw at Kent's Pediatric Interim Care Center look like any adorable newborn baby. Their bodies were swaddled tight, like tiny sleeping burritos resting in a homey, pastel tinted nursery. But all of these babies are recovering from drugs. They were born addicted because their mothers used during pregnancy. Some are addicted to drugs like cocaine, methadone and heroine, but in recent years many babies are born to mothers who took prescription pain drugs while pregnant.

"They come from middle to upper class environments," says PICC's Executive director Barbara Drennen. "They have a beautiful home, a beautiful car, they have money. Then to tell someone, 'My baby is at PICC because it's withdrawing from drugs.' There's a lot of guilt and they don't want anybody to know that this is something that they've done."

Barbara says because these drugs are legal, the babies can go home with their mothers.

The newborns can arrive at PICC between five and eight hours after birth and they're cared for depending on what drug they're addicted to.

"Your opiate baby, which would be your heroine, methadone, in the prescription drug family, Vicodin, Percocet, Oxycodone. That baby often comes in with tremors, irritability, loose stools. You work very, very hard to keep that baby comfortable. We will swaddle it tightly to keep it from tremoring. If the baby isn't already on morphine then within 24 hours, more than likely, we'll have the baby on morphine."

PICC only uses morphine, as opposed to some hospitals that use up to five drugs at a time to bring a baby down. But the key, when the baby first comes in, is to cancel out all stimuli to relax their tight little bodies and relieve them of anxiety while they detox.

"We don't use overhead lights, we don't have music in the building, we don't have the mobiles on and we don't talk in their face. As the days go by, we will unswaddle them for a few minutes. That's a source of stimuli, having that open. We might introduce them to indirect lighting or begin to talk softly to them."

PICC is the only 24-hour center in the county that specializes in infant drug withdrawal. Barbara was a foster mother for 40 years and she took hundreds of children into her home.

"We went from healthy newborns to tiny neonates that were weighing a pound and a half at birth. There were just so many when cocaine hit the streets. The hospitals were working so hard to help these babies survive, only to have to send them out before they wanted to because they were just overwhelmed with them. They were sending them into foster care barely weighing four pounds."

The overwhelmed hospitals asked Barbara if she could help on a larger scale, so she designed the program, went to the Legislature for funding, and in 1990 PICC opened its doors.

It costs $3,700 a day to treat a baby in the hospital but at PICC it only costs $153, and the parents don't pay a dime. PICC's Elaine Purchase says the babies can stay as long as they need to.

"There is no pressure here for them to go through withdrawal quickly. If it takes 30 days for a baby to go through withdrawal, that's fine. We have babies who take 60 days to go through withdrawal. But in a hospital situation there's a lot more pressure to get those babies out quickly."

Barbara says the mothers who aren't in jail are encouraged to visit their babies as often as they'd like, and the nurses teach them to care for the infants properly and not to breast feed if they have drugs in their system. She says they don't judge the mothers, but choose to educate them.

Barbara is now over 70 years old, but she has no plans to stop working. Her favorite scent is Johnson's baby powder and she loves each and every baby who comes through her door.

"I'll fight to the death for the babies, all of us will," Barbara said. "You know, the girls make fun of me when I hire someone. I'll say, 'Well, she has the face that I want.' And 'the face' means she has the passion for the babies. She will protect the babies to the death because all too often that isn't happening."

PICC runs on donations.Click here if you'd like to help.

Rachel Belle, Ron and Don Show Reporter
Rachel Belle is a feature contributor and personality on The Ron & Don Show on KIRO Radio (weekdays 3-7pm), and host of Ring My Belle Weekends (Saturdays at 5pm and Sundays at 3pm).

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