‘You can tell they’re in pain:’ Hospitals see more infant victims of opioid crisis

YORK, Pa. (WHTM) – We’ve heard the stories about the heroin epidemic, but one of the things that’s not talked enough about are tiny victims who suffer through no fault of their own.

The number of babies born suffering from withdrawal symptoms of heroin and other opioids has skyrocketed. A York County mother of three shared her story to spare other newborns the pain she put hers through.

She has three girls under the age of four; Penelope, Charleigh and Stella.

“She has a mind of her own. She’s so strong-willed, she’s basically me in toddler form,” their mother Jannelle Dissinger said,

The girls are picture perfect. But their mom is admittedly flawed.

“I basically prayed to die every single day because I couldn’t get out and I didn’t know how to get out,” she said.

Not long ago, a much different looking Jannelle walked this earth.

“I woke up, I got high, and that was my life,” she said.

At 20 years old, Jannelle was working at a restaurant and fell in with the wrong crowd.

“I knew it was wrong, but I always thought I’m going to be okay, I wasn’t going to get addicted, I was going to be that one person that was going to be okay,” she said.

First, she tried cocaine – then heroin. She tried rehab, but it didn’t work. Then she got pregnant.

“And I overdosed, and at the point, I was like, I’m done. I can’t do this anymore, so I went to a Suboxone doctor and I never used ever again,” she said.

It was a success, but it was too late. All three babies were born suffering from withdrawal.

“I literally thought that this was going to be my life and they were going to take my kids from me and that was going to be the end of it,” she said.

Which brings us to PinnacleHealth in Harrisburg.

“It’s always been there, but you’re starting to hear about it a little bit more,” said Kaitlyn Palkon, discharge coordinator for PinnacleHealth NICU.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS, is caused when a pregnant woman takes opioids, causing the baby to experience withdrawal at birth.

“They’re very irritable. They’re very uncomfortable. You can tell they’re in pain,” Palkon said.

Babies can end up hospitalized for three weeks; sometimes three months. Symptoms include tremors, sweating, stiffness, vomiting, and constant crying that can’t be mistaken.

“This cry is very high pitched. I mean, you can be a hundred feet away and hear this cry. It’s very unique. It almost sounds painful, like you think the baby is getting some type of painful procedure,” Palkon said.

000005Over the past five years, the number of newborns with NAS in the state has gone up. The numbers reflect only those covered by Medicaid but show an increase of about 200 each year. Medical experts use a scale to see if a newborn needs treatment.

“Each withdrawal symptom gets its own number, then we add those numbers up to determine the severity of the withdrawal,” Palkon said.

Most hospitals won’t treat a baby unless they score consistently above an eight, so the data doesn’t represent all babies with NAS. And it’s not just opioids putting babies on the charts.

“Some of the babies who are observed or have significant withdrawal, it’ll be not because the mother is taking any kind of illegal medication, but she’s being properly treated for a chronic condition,” said Dr. Michael Goodstein, a neonatologist at Wellspan Hospital.

Jannelle’s babies withdrew from Suboxone, not heroin. It’s an opioid blocker that suppresses cravings and the feeling of getting high. She calls this the best-case scenario in a worst-case situation.

“There were times, for hours, I’d go in there and I just had to look at her, I couldn’t even hold her,” she said.

What she didn’t know is there’s plenty of help.

“The way we really need to think about this is this is an illness. It’s a disease, and putting a person in jail for a disease is not going to help make that person get better at the end of the day,” Goodstein said.

Today, Jannelle’s girls are healthy, but she still feels guilty for making them suffer.

“I’m their mom. I’m supposed to protect them. I’m not supposed to be the reason that they’re sick, and at the end of the day, as long as I’m a good mom to them, then I’ve come out on top,” she said.

There’s a bill to create a task force to focus on the impact of the opioid crisis on pregnant woman and babies. It’s a large effort by the Center for Children’s Justice.

Jannelle is still on Suboxone to this day. She said she hopes to eventually go off it once her kids are a little older so she can better deal with withdrawal.

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