PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – The drug problem in America is now a crisis across the country. People are dying of overdoses at a rapid rate and the number of babies being born exposed to drugs is higher than ever before.

Aleshia Barber turned to crack cocaine at the age of 24, after a decade of abusing alcohol and marijuana.

“Every single day, all day, I really believed that I could not get up if I didn’t have it,” said Barber.

That changed when Aleshia witnessed her newborn son go through withdrawal. For 10 days, Tresean was in the NICU, shaking and crying uncontrollably. His tiny 4-pound body was going through a devastating detox.

“It just hurts to know that this baby, that I love dearly with every piece of me, is going through what he is going through because I couldn’t stop,” said Barber.

Aleshia got clean a month after Tresean’s birth. It will be 10 years in October. She now works with struggling addicts at the Light of Life Rescue Mission and although her life is completely different, the guilt and shame never go away.

More moms than ever before understand those feelings.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a baby is born suffering from opioid withdrawal every 25 minutes.

In Pittsburgh, the numbers are alarming.

At Magee-Women’s Hospital of UPMC, roughly 600 babies a year are born exposed to opioids. At Allegheny Health Network’s Forbes, Jefferson, and West Penn Hospitals, nearly 140 babies were born exposed, last year alone.

“I never thought it would be this bad, I didn’t think it would be this bad for our community,” said Deb McDonald, Director of Women’s Health Programs for Allegheny Health Network.

McDonald was instrumental in launching Allegheny Health Network’s new “Perinatal Hope” program. The program combines OB care, drug and alcohol therapy, medication-assisted treatment, and a lot more in one clinic visit. It’s the region’s first one-stop-shop for personalized and comprehensive care for addicted mothers.

“We know that just giving a pill, just giving Subutex, is not going to help that mom,” said McDonald.

As for the babies, the program is helping to ward off severe cases of withdrawal or what is called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. Some babies can experience symptoms that last for 40 days.

“They go through shaking and jittering and crying and irritability,” said McDonald.

At West Penn Hospital, about 15 percent of admissions to the NICU are NAS babies.

“To see them go through that, it’s heartbreaking,” said McDonald.

Already, babies involved in the Perinatal Hope program are showing less symptoms. Many babies don’t show any symptoms.
McDonald says she thinks the program is the first step in breaking the drug cycle in Pittsburgh.

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