In the 1980s, Barbara Drennen was a foster mother who specialized in caring for premature newborns in Kent, Washington. One day, she was assigned a baby who had been prenatally exposed to drugs. “The baby came to me on oxygen, then had to be readmitted to the hospital, then came back to me on a ventilator.”
To give this medically fragile infant the attention it needed, Drennen converted the lower part of her house into a 24-hour nursing facility.
It was a case of “If you build it, they will come.” Drug use was on the rise, and as other drug-exposed infants were sent her way, Drennen and another local caregiver for special needs children, Barbara Richards, began to collaborate on developing therapies for helping these babies through the wrenching symptoms of withdrawal.
“The Two Barbs” soon outgrew their in-home accommodations and designed and opened the Pediatric Interim Care Center (PICC), a unique, donor-funded, round-the-clock nursery that helps these earliest victims of drug abuse get through their first, difficult weeks of life.
Depending on the drug(s) a birth mother abuses, the symptoms her newborn exhibits can vary widely. It’s helpful when mothers admit to and identify their drug of choice, but when they don’t, PICC staff need to watch for certain telltale behaviors in the infants. Pre-natal exposure to cocaine, for example, leaves babies uninterested in feeding, while pre-natal opiate exposure is identified by a newborn’s inconsolability and difficult withdrawal. Methamphetamine exposure results in caustic chemicals being excreted in a baby’s stool, which is very harsh on newborn skin.
Despite the rough start these newborns experience, Drennen says that she has seen many of the thousands of babies PICC has treated go on to thrive. “Our babies are beautiful and it’s wonderful that we can help them through this period of time. With the proper management, they can do fine,” she said.
Barbara Lloyd McMichael is author of the syndicated book review column “The Bookmonger.”