PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Nearly 2,000 Arizona babies have been born addicted to opioids, since the state began tracking data in June of 2017.
Two experienced NICU nurses noticed more babies showing withdrawal symptoms several years ago, and founded Hushabye Nursery to address the problem.
"We used to see one a month. Then we started seeing five, six or seven a day," said Tara Sundem, who worked in neonatal intensive care units, and as a nurse practitioner for decades.
"Vomiting, diarrhea, and they shake. It's a high pitched-cry, like a cat cry. They can sleep for a couple minutes at a time if they're lucky," she said of the withdrawal symptoms in newborns.
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The Hushabye volunteers hold what they call "HOPPE" classes, which stands for Hushabye Opioid Pregnancy Preparation and Empowerment.
They hope to have their own stand-alone building in the coming months, but for the last few years, they've been holding support groups at different clinics, where women go for treatment. Several times a week, they'll go to clinics, looking for pregnant women.
"You'll hear people call them methadone clinics, but these are clinics which treat this specific chronic illness," she said.
In addition to encouraging the pregnant women, education is a big part of their mission. For one thing, they quash the misconception that quitting "cold turkey'' is best for the mother and her baby.
"If they just stopped, they'd miscarry, or the baby would be born pre-term because withdrawal is that hard," Sundem explained.
The Hushabye nurses and volunteers met Elsie Ramos-Gonzalez last spring. She was pregnant, addicted, and scared. She realized she needed help, after witnessing a friend die from an overdose. For three months, she mistook her morning sickness for symptoms of withdrawal. While pregnant, she was arrested on outstanding warrants.
"I just kept thinking, sitting in the jail bed, that I could get three to five years. If I had to do time, who knows what would have happened to my baby," she said.
Ramos-Gonzalez started attending Hushabye's parenting classes, and gave birth in June, to her daughter, Livianna.
"She was a healthy baby when she was born, but then the symptoms started and that's when I started to feel guilty and bad about myself. She had a high pitched cry, diarrhea and she was shaking sometimes," Ramos-Gonzalez said.
The new mother worried the Department of Child Safety would take her daughter. The Hushabye volunteers offer guidance in this area, too.
"Everybody hears DCS is coming, and they immediately think they're going to lose their babies. They get a bad rap. I try to stress to them that their first priority is to keep their baby safe, and No. 2, believe it or not, is to keep families together," Sundem said.
After a home visit from DCS staff, Ramos-Gonzalez was allowed to keep her baby.
"It was the best feeling ever. No high from a drug could ever compare to that feeling," she said.
Eight months later, Livianna is a normal, healthy baby.
Of the 71 mothers Hushabye has worked with over the last year, Sundem says 85% are home, healthy and living with their newborns. The organization's services continue after birth.
"How are they supposed to get diapers and wipes and a crib? We connect them with all those services," Sundem said.
Hushabye has been volunteer-based for five years, but just received funding to officially hire two full-time staff members. Later this year, they're hoping to have their own 12-patient unit for moms and babies.
"It used to be, many of these kids went to foster care. We're changing that," she said.
Funding comes from Vitalist Foundation, the state Opioid Response Grant, ASU Venture Devils, Dignity Health and other groups. Arizona tracks real-time opioid data at the Arizona Department of Health Services' website.