WAVE 3 News Investigation: Pregnant and using

Published: May. 22, 2017 at 8:55 PM EDT|Updated: May. 23, 2017 at 12:26 AM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The heroin-opioid crisis in Kentucky and Southern Indiana has hit epidemic level, so much so that even pregnant women are now among the growing number of people addicted to the deadly drugs.

>> VIDEO: Watch Julian Glover's report

The drug dealers don't care who their buyers are. Even a mom-to-be can get her fix. Expectant mothers are shooting up at a dangerous rate, and many of them overdose.

So what goes through the mind of a mother using while she's pregnant?

We were left wondering -- until now.

After weeks, we tracked down an expectant mom who used while pregnant. She agreed only to speak to WAVE 3 News as long as her identity was obscured. For the purposes of this story, she will be called Lindsey. Lindsey is 17 weeks pregnant.

WAVE 3 News: "Did you know that you were pregnant the last time you used?"
Lindsey: "Yes, I did. I could feel a little baby bump in there."

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This is how serious the heroin-opioid epidemic is. Not even a growing child inside her could stop her from taking prescription pain pills.

Lindsey said she took the opioid painkillers just five days before she spoke to WAVE 3 News, and three weeks before that she snorted heroin.

Lindsey, 30, said she's been using a mix of drugs since she was 13. And she's done it all: everything from heroin, meth, cocaine, opioid pain killers and even sleeping aids.

She said it was one last nudge from a caring friend that got her to seek treatment this time around.

"It's not something I never want to do," Lindsey said. "It's just something I couldn't do on my own."

Lindsey is just one of hundreds of women pregnant and using in the Bluegrass State. Our WAVE 3 News investigation revealed 1,565 babies were born addicted in Kentucky in 2016, according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

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The medical condition is called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) and means severe birth defects if not treated early enough. Symptoms include inconsolable crying, shaking, tremors, excessive sucking and the potential for longer-term learning disabilities.

An analysis of the condition in Kentucky dating back to 2006 revealed a steady increase in the number of babies born with NAS each year. It's an issue growing in the shadows that programs like New Vision for Expectant Mothers, at Norton Women's and Children's Hospital, is combating head on.

"They're scared because they don't want their baby born addicted, but they are very dependent on these substances that they've been using a long period of time," said RN Paige Ross, service coordinator for New Vision.

The program has been up and running for two years and has helped about 300 women. Ross said many of the women under her care go on to have healthy, full-term babies thanks to their innovative treatment program.

Ross stressed that the heroin crisis doesn't just affect one ZIP code. She said she sees all types of patients with varying lifestyles and financial situations.

"Not every patient we serve is a homeless heroin addict that's living on the street," Ross said. "We see moms who are successfully parenting two and three kids."

Expectant moms like Lindsey are happy that there's help.

"The child didn't ask to be born," Lindsey said. "It's the things that we've done that got ourselves pregnant. We need to take responsibility."

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The program is tailor-made for the mom and child-on-the-way typically lasting anywhere from a few days to a week. During the program, the mother is evaluated by a number of physicians to identify the best treatment option. For many women it includes what doctors call substitution and maintenance, sometimes referred to as medication-assisted treatment.

The pregnant woman is given a medication like Subutex or Methadone and effectively weaned off of the opioid (heroin or prescription) while stabilizing the baby. When done effectively, the outcomes are positive.

"We've had moms that have come in six, eight, and twelve weeks pregnant and those moms have delivered full-term, healthy babies with no NAS," Ross said.

The treatment doesn't come cheap, however, and it's costing taxpayers. Our WAVE 3 News investigation revealed Medicaid was billed more than $22 million in 2016 to pay for medical treatment of these addicted babies. Those preliminary numbers were provided to WAVE 3 News following an open-records request to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Given how dire the situation is, Kentucky recently received a federal grant worth $10.5 million to battle the crisis. It's a part of the 21st Century Cures Act, passed by Congress in December 2016.

WAVE 3 News: "What would you say to those women who are pregnant and using, who don't think there's help out there?"
Lindsey: "I'm here to support them and anybody else that needs support. Because someone is actually using doesn't mean that they're a cold-hearted drug addict."

If you or someone you know is pregnant and using there are resources available.

The contact information for New Vision for Expectant Mothers is listed below:

New Vision for Expectant Mothers
Phone: 502-559-4375

Copyright 2017 WAVE 3 News. All rights reserved.