There’s been plenty of talk lately about the heroin epidemic overwhelming the Seattle area and the rest of the nation.
But as the debate about what to do rages on, a small group of people in Kent are making sure the youngest victims don’t suffer and have a shot at a normal, healthy life.
Edna Pinon-Garcia and her boyfriend, Anthony Fabela, had big dreams when they started dating. But then they tried heroin, quickly got hooked and their lives went into a freefall.
The couple, both in their early 20s, ultimately ended up living inside a tent in a Federal Way park. Then Edna started feeling sick.
“And what I thought was dope sickness was morning sickness,” she said. “We kept smoking and I wondered, ‘Why am I still sick; why am I still throwing up?’ Then we took a pregnancy test.”
Pinon-Garcia went to the doctor, who confirmed her pregnancy. Contrary to what you might think, the doctor told her to keep using the opiate because otherwise her unborn baby would suffer withdrawals and likely die.
So when her baby, Daniel, was born last month, he was a heroin addict as well, immediately going through withdrawals. It breaks her heart.
“We know what it’s like,” she said. “We’ve been there. It’s hard seeing him go through it, too.”
“There’s really nothing we can do now,” Fabela said. “The damage is already done. All we can do is watch him get better.”
Luckily, Daniel will get better and won’t have to suffer — thanks to the special care he’s getting at the Pediatric Interim Care Center.
The Kent facility is the first-of-its-kind in the nation designed specifically to treat drug addicted babies.
It was created by long-time foster mother Barbara Drennen, who faced an onslaught of premature drug babies that needed special care during the peak of the local crack epidemic in the late 80s.
“Babies were being born on street corners, in hotels, weighing a pound-and-a-half at birth,” Drennen said. “And the hospitals were overwhelmed with them. They didn’t know what to do.”
The doctors had to come to Drennen’s Kent home, and she hired 24-hour nursing care to help treat the newborns.
“I had one baby in the nursery, and then I had three newborns upstairs with maybe three toddlers, plus my own two children,” she said.
Many doctors and hospitals had no idea how to treat drug-exposed babies.
So Drennen and her co-founder, Barbara Richards, worked with local doctors to develop medical protocols to help manage withdrawals and treat the youngest patients — especially those exposed to heroin or other opiates in utero.
Drennen says it’s as much art as science.
“It’s really a craft because when the baby comes in we don’t know how much mom was using,” she said. “We’ve got to take him up on his morphine to the level he was using in utero.”
It can take up to a year to train nurses in the rare treatment, Drennen said.
Seeing a newborn going through withdrawals can be heartbreaking. The babies are frantic: clawing at their faces and legs flailing.
It takes a special skill to make them comfortable. But they do, thanks to a very precise system that includes up to 60 days of tapering doses of morphine.
Completely different care is needed for babies born to meth-addicted moms.
“Those babies don’t go through the typical withdrawals,” she said. “They don’t wake to feed. When you go to feed them, they can’t eat. So our job is to teach them when to wake and how to eat.”
Over 25 years, Drennen and her team of medical professionals and volunteers have treated thousands of babies.
Miraculously, nearly all go on to happy, healthy lives, showing no damage from their early exposure to drugs.
“The babies have generally gone to beautiful homes, whether it be mom, dad, aunt, uncle, cousin, grandma or grandpa, or into foster, pre-adopt homes,” she said.
Visiting with Pinon-Garcia as she holds Daniel and rocks him to sleep, he seems perfectly content.
She vows to get better for her baby, looking forward to getting clean, marrying Fabela and raising a happy, healthy son. It’s a far cry from a life of homelessness, crime and addiction.
“It’s already beginning,” Pinon-Garcia said. “I’m getting into detox here in a few days so I don’t have to keep using to keep well. And then we are going to go into an in-patient treatment where I’m going to have him with me.”