When Christina Upole adopted her son Tristan seven years ago, she said, “He was the most severely drug-addicted baby I ever saw.”
Through a friend of a friend, Upole became aware of a pregnant prostitute in Masontown who was addicted to crack and who wanted to give up custodial rights to the baby she was carrying. The adoption was arranged privately, and Upole said she first met the woman in an attorney’s office when they signed the necessary paperwork and paid the fees.
The baby was delivered by Caesarian section, Upole said, because the mother had so many sexually transmitted diseases she couldn’t give birth on her own.
Tristan, suffering through drug withdrawal, screamed inconsolably for eight straight weeks. He even appeared physically different, Upole said.
“The drug addiction alters their bodies. It alters their muscles,” she said. “Some of them look like He-Man, and (Tristan) was one of them.”
“It was the saddest thing ever,” she said.
According to Lea Walls, clinical director of Uniontown Hospital’s Family Beginnings Birthing Center, 60 to 80 percent of babies exposed to opiates in utero will develop neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). The number of babies born with NAS nearly tripled between 2000 and 2009, she said. Symptoms of the condition include tremors, restlessness, seizures, high-pitched crying, poor feeding, excessive sucking, high heart rate, poor sleeping and the increased muscle tone, Upole described.
Although Upole was aware that Tristan’s mother was addicted to drugs, Walls said many times the mothers have kept their addiction quiet. When those women go into labor and are admitted to the hospital, they are in pain, and Walls said educating them about the birth experience and the needs of the newborn at that moment is not highly effective.
Walls said babies born to addicted mothers are kept at least five days to monitor their withdrawal, rather than the customary two days for healthy infants. Severe cases are transferred to nearby medical facilities where morphine or other drug therapies are administered to ease the pain the newborns experience with withdrawal, said Walls. That process can take three or four weeks.
To promote more healthy outcomes from pregnant women and their babies, Walls said the hospital applied for a grant with Chevron to begin a pre-NAS program aimed at providing education and counseling from a registered nurse.
Walls said the free program would be coordinated with Fayette County obstetricians and area drug rehabilitation clinics. Between 34 and 36 weeks of pregnancy, patients would engage in a one-hour session with a nurse to go over the planned hospital stay, drug testing for mother and baby, signs and symptoms of neonatal withdrawal, breastfeeding, the dangers of resuming street drugs post-birth, the importance of remaining on rehabilitation medications and how to communicate information to family members.
Expectant mothers also will be shown a video about infant withdrawal, said Walls.
For Upole, taking home a drug-addicted baby was more of a crash-course.
“There are times when you feel like you want to give up. All you could do was hold him, rock him,” said Upole.
When caring for the drug-sick infant proved overwhelming, she said she would put him in his crib and walk away for 10 minutes to collect herself.
As if the challenge of raising a drug-addicted baby wasn’t difficult enough, Upole said she and her husband took on another drug-addicted baby as foster parents at the same time.
“I lived in the living room,” she said. “I put one baby in a rocker and held the other.”
Although both babies struggled, Upole said Tristan has had lasting complications that she feels are related to having been born drug-addicted. Not enough research is available, she said, but it was clear to her from the beginning that Tristan was different.
“I would go into the pediatrician’s office crying, saying, ‘There’s something wrong with this baby,’” said Upole. “The pediatrician said, ‘He’s going to be a special child.’”
Tristan’s diagnostic list sounds like alphabet soup: PDD, ODD, ADHD, mood disorder NOS. In English, those translate to pervasive development disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and mood disorder not otherwise specified.
Tristan is living in a residential treatment center near Erie. Upole said she is committed to seeing her son get the help he needs, even though the mental health system can be tough to navigate. Recently, Tristan was allowed to come home to be with his family for Christmas, but Upole said she had to be firm and insistent about securing his temporary release. She makes it a point to communicate through Skype while he’s away and visits as often as budgetary restrictions and the demands of raising other small children allow.
Altogether, Upole said that in addition to her three natural children, ages 13, 18 and 21, she has adopted three children who were born addicted. Two of those, including Tristan, are now 7 years old, and the other is 4. She has two foster children younger than the age of 1 and possibly another newborn on the way.
Upole has spent years learning more and more about the needs of drug-addicted babies and said she has taken every training and sat through every seminar under the sun.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” she said, “and there’s a will here, honey.”