JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – Seizures, irritability, a high-pitched cry and difficulty eating. Those are all symptoms of a baby with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) going through withdrawal.
“When you see a baby experiencing withdrawals, it’s heartbreaking,” said Dr. Shawn Hollinger, a neonatologist with Niswonger Children’s Hospital. “It can seem very painful for the baby and can last from days to months. It’s something most adults can’t go through without help.”
On Tuesday, May 23, administration at Niswonger Children’s Hospital announced the opening of the new Special Care Unit, an area of the hospital dedicated to caring for babies with NAS and other special needs. The Special Care Unit is in response to the region-wide epidemic of babies with NAS. On average, about 30 percent of the babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Niswonger Children’s Hospital are suffering from NAS.
Pictured at right, cutting the ribbon on the new Special Care Unit: From left to right, Don Raines, radiothon committee; Tim Copenhaver, Champion Chevrolet Cadillac; Pat Holtsclaw, Mountain States Foundation; Andy Dietrich, Champion Chevrolet Cadillac; Lisa Carter, Niswonger Children’s Hospital VP/CEO; and Dr. Shawn Hollinger.
NAS occurs when babies are born dependent to prescribed medications or illicit substances that the mother has used during pregnancy. Before birth, the baby is exposed through the placenta, and after delivery, he or she experiences withdrawal symptoms. Opioids (painkillers) or benzodiazepines (for anxiety or sleep) are the most common medications that cause NAS, but other drugs, legal and illicit, may also be the cause.
Pregnant women may be using medicine as prescribed, for addiction or pain treatment, or may be using medication or substances inappropriately. These newborns may need to stay in the hospital longer than other full term babies and often face serious medical and developmental problems, both at birth and as they grow up.
The 17-room Special Care Unit is designed to help these babies by providing private rooms, allowing for a more specialized setting than a traditional NICU. NAS babies are often sensitive to noise and light that normally would not distress an infant. By creating private rooms that allow caregivers to control noise and light levels, hospital officials hope to help the babies recover from withdrawal faster and go home sooner.
“This unit allows us to create an environment tailored to each baby’s individual needs,” said Hollinger. “We can keep the lights dim if that’s what that baby likes. We can keep it quiet if that’s what that baby likes; we can play some calming or soothing music if that’s what that baby likes. It also encourages breastfeeding and skin-to-skin bonding time.
“This has all been shown in scientific studies to decrease the time the baby has withdrawal symptoms and decrease their need to be in the hospital.”
Money raised by the Mountain States Foundation through the 2016 Niswonger Children’s Hospital Radiothon, the Champion Chevrolet Cadillac car raffle and Spirit Gala funded the project, which cost approximately $500,000.
“The Special Care Unit is going to be a huge help for these babies,” said Lisa Carter, chief executive officer of Niswonger Children’s Hospital. “With a private room, they’ll be able to get a different kind of care. It will be a better place for families to be able to bond with their babies. Also, we can bring in community resources a lot easier because there will be space for them to come in and see the families before they go home.”
The new unit officially opens Wednesday, May 24.