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Kanawha County hospital to open unit for babies with NAS

February 27, 2019
Image courtesy of Thomas Memorial Hospital A rendering of Thomas Memorial’s future Baby STEPS unit for infants with neonatal abstinence syndrome. The hospital plans to open the unit this spring.
Image courtesy of Thomas Memorial Hospital A rendering of Thomas Memorial’s future Baby STEPS unit for infants with neonatal abstinence syndrome. The hospital plans to open the unit this spring.


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SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome born at Thomas Memorial Hospital will soon recover in their own special unit at the South Charleston hospital.

The hospital plans to open Baby STEPS, an eight-bed unit for babies withdrawing from maternal drug use, later this spring, hospital spokeswoman Paige Johnson said.

“This is a pretty big deal because there’s not that many specialized units in the state for this particular need,” Johnson said.

In Huntington, the Hoops Family Children’s Hospital at Cabell Huntington Hospital has a special unit for the babies. Huntington also has Lily’s Place, which opened in 2014 as the first neonatal abstinence syndrome center in the United States.

Thomas Memorial delivers between 900 and 1,100 babies each year, about 13 percent of which have neonatal abstinence syndrome, Johnson said.

The condition is a response to maternal drug use, from either prescribed or illicit drugs.

“What we tend to see here is mothers who are using opioids or possibly heroin,” said Heather Fouch, nursing director for obstetrics and newborn services at Thomas. “Another thing that we’ve found that the babies don’t tolerate very well is medication assisted treatment or MAT.”

Babies with NAS currently recover in the hospital’s special care nursery, or neonatal intensive care, where they take up about 60 percent of the beds, Johnson said.

Moving the babies to their own unit will free up space in the special care nursery, which has been at maximum capacity as the cases of NAS have risen, and may provide a better recovery environment for the infants.

Babies who are withdrawing from drugs in their mothers’ systems have symptoms like tremors, diarrhea, vomiting, jerking, excessive crying, hypertonicity and feeding difficulty, Fouch said.

They typically stay in the hospital 16 to 18 days, compared to the three to five required for a healthy baby, Johnson said.

“We realized that we need a specially designed space for these infants and also for their caregivers, so that way we can encourage bonding and encourage education for the parents and caregivers. That way we’re working with the whole unit, the mother, baby, dad,” Fouch said.

“And then what research is starting to tell us is that the length of stay for these infants and their need for medication through the withdraw is often decreased if we can encourage that caregiver to be present,” she said. “So we realized that we need additional space.”

The special care unit - with its bright lights, noisy alarms, monitors and other disturbances - isn’t the best environment for babies with NAS to recover, Fouch said.

“Research is beginning to collaborate and gather information about how to best identify and treat NAS,” Fouch said. “Thomas is responding to that need and we’re responding to the need most specifically of the patients to make a dark, quiet environment that is individualized for each infant and to encourage and support visitation from the families.”

The Foundation for Thomas Health is donating $250,000 to pay for renovations and equipment to get the Baby STEPS unit up and running. The foundation has also earmarked its fundraising events this year to support the unit, executive director Sally Barton said.

STEPS in the unit’s name stands for “sensitive treatment, education and parenting support.”

“Baby STEPS has lots of interpretations,” Barton said. “It’s an acronym ... also it’s also a nod to what it takes in recovery and also for the babies. We’re excited as the final plans for the unit come together.”

The unit will be on the hospital’s second floor. Renovations already have begun, Johnson said.

Grace’s Closet, a service in the hospital that provides clothing and other items for women in recovery, is accepting donations for the unit.

Needed items include: infant sleepers and swaddles, receiving blankets, diaper bags, fragrance-free detergent and MamaRoo Swings. They’re also accepting items for caregivers at the unit including toiletries, entertainment items and passes for the parking garage. To donate, contact Misty McGlothlin at 304-544-1245.

The Foundation is also accepting monetary donations.

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1240 or follow @LoriKerseyWV on Twitter.

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