The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at East Tennessee Children's Hospital had to dedicate an entire floor to babies born dependent on drugs.
Nurses at the hospital said the 16 beds stay full, and the staff is for more waiting to arrive.
The babies going through drug withdrawal are stiff, jittery and are often inconsolable. These are the symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome or NAS, a condition caused by drug exposure.
"Her cry is very high pitched. It's not a typical new born cry," said NICU nurse Stacie Osborne about one of her patients.
At Children's Hospital, they've developed a medicinal and holistic approach to wean the babies off of the drugs. It includes decreasing doses of morphine and dark, private rooms. Even with ETCH's approach, the babies with NAS still need constant attention.
"There's nothing worse than being a nurse and you can hear your patient crying and you can't get to them," Osborne said. "There are cases where the baby has been here for a month and a half, and the mom has visited three or four times due to circumstances that we aren't aware of. We are their family at that point."
The nurses have an extra set of hands with volunteer "cuddlers."
"Basically, we wander up and down the halls and listen for someone who needs us. We'll check with the nurse and see if it's ok to go in and cuddle the baby, pick them up and hold them," said volunteer Julieanne Foy. "Sometimes it's for five minutes. Sometimes it's for two hours."
Foy has been helping nurses soothe the babies on the NAS floor for more than a year.
"You just kind of have to do whatever works whether it's singing to them or moving around rocking whatever works best," Foy said. "They love to be held and to feel arms around them and make them feel secure."
As good as calming a baby feels, Foy said it's emotionally exhausting.
"When I talk about it people say, 'Aww that sounds wonderful!' And it is wonderful, but it's hard," Foy said. "You feel so bad when you can't get them comforted, and have to pass them off to a nurse, and say I can't do this."
As the medical staff at Children's Hospital continues to learn more about the growing opiate epidemic and its impacts on children, they're grateful for the cuddlers who help ease the babies' pain.
People wanting to sign up to volunteer as a cuddler must volunteer in another area of the hospital for more than a year. Click here to view volunteering opportunities at the Children's Hospital.
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