Srianthi Perera/AFN Staff

An Ahwatukee nurse has joined a colleague in an effort to help the youngest victims of drug addiction – newborn babies.

Neonatal nurse Kelly Woody is joining fellow nurse Tara Sundem to establish Hushabye Nursery, Arizona’s first outpatient recovery center for such infants and only the third in the nation.

As a practitioner in a large medical center in the East Valley, they have seen too many babies having tremors, seizures, stiff limbs, difficulty sleeping and vomiting.

These are the tiniest victims of the drug-abuse epidemic sweeping the country.

Their symptoms indicate Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome – infants are in withdrawal from drugs, particularly opioids, that were used by the mother during pregnancy.

In July 2015, the Arizona Department of Health Services said the rate of the syndrome has increased by 235 percent from 2008 and 27 percent since 2013.

“I always thought the downtown or the west side is associated with drug use. But it’s happening here, too,” said Sundem, a Gilbert resident.

On any given week, there are more than a dozen babies in withdrawal in East Valley hospitals.

“Five or six years ago, we would see one or two patients a month,” she said. “Now, we see six to eight cases a day.”

Hushabye Nursery would provide a therapeutic and inviting environment of short-term medical care to the infants and their families as well as offer non-judgmental support, education and counseling.

The Technical Assistance Partnership of Arizona, which helps nonprofits be successful, is helping with a business plan and making connections.

The two nurses have also enlisted the support of Melissa Delaney, who is adept at fundraising, while health-care finance expert Antoinette Sheen is helping them navigate the rules, laws and regulations for establishing a new health-care provider and providing guidance on the financial plan.

Hushabye Nursery will be modeled on a similar recovery center in West Virginia called Lily’s Place.

There’s just one other facility, in Seattle, which is centered more on foster care. Although the syndrome has skyrocketed around the country, there are only two facilities exclusively devoted to the care of these babies.

With a business plan ready, the nurses are looking for a site to be donated to the cause. There’s an empty state medical facility in Phoenix, but 18 other non-profits are in the running to obtain it.

Ideally, the facility for Hushabye Nursery should be about 9,000 square feet, Sundem said, and have space to host 12 beds and the possibility of increasing it to 16 beds in the future.

It would employ about 25 people, recruit volunteers and partner with community organizations. The center would also look into forming contracts with local nursing schools that could send its students for clinical experience.

Funding for Hushabye Nursery is going to be sought initially from private sources and fundraising. A local philanthropic organization has expressed interest in helping, as well. Once the facility is up and running, organizers plan to get reimbursement from the state’s Medicaid Agency, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.

Sundem and Woody believe that taking the babies out of a stimulating neonatal intensive care unit of a hospital, where they’re usually placed, would be helpful for them.

The neonatal unit is usually a high-energy place with bright lights, bleeping monitors and heightened activity, and is designed to take care of premature babies and babies with heart surgery and respiratory problems, Sundem said.

“Essentially, the babies with the syndrome are healthy, big babies that are having to withdraw. They need a quiet, homelike environment that’s dark, with very minimal stimulation,” she said.

In Arizona, babies are given morphine to aid in the withdrawal process. While a healthy baby goes home within 48 hours, a drug-addicted baby needs about eight weeks to recover.

“When they withdraw, it’s hard, it’s painful, it’s heart-wrenching to watch them do the things to withdraw. They’re tremulous; they shake uncontrollably, they’ll have a fever intermittently, they’ll sweat, they’ll cry inconsolably. It’s not uncommon for them to get maybe five to 10 minutes of sleep just because they can’t give in,” she said.

The babies would first be stabilized in a large hospital before being transferred to Hushabye Nursery to continue their withdrawal. Some babies don’t need further care because they recover within 48 to 72 hours after birth.

For most mothers, having a baby that’s addicted is a turning point in their own lives, Sundem said.

“It’s a matter of us giving them the resources and the training and the education to try to make it so that the baby and the moms have the best outcomes,” she said. “It’s a start for both of them for a healthier life.”

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