In a few weeks, babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) will be able to recover in Thomas Memorial Hospital’s new NAS Special Care Unit.
The new 3,681-square-foot unit is named “BabySTEPS” and will help babies and their families recover one step at a time through Sensitive Treatment, Education and Parenting Support (STEPS).
“Thomas has seen the need for specialized treatment of these babies and we will deliver that care with our advanced technology, our highly skilled nursing staff and with compassion,” said Dan Lauffer, president & CEO of Thomas Health.
Neonatal abstinence syndrome occurs in infants who are withdrawing from maternal use of drugs, whether prescribed or illicit.
Once the infant is delivered, they no longer are receiving whatever the mother was consuming, so they may withdraw from the substances that the mother was taking. Babies experiencing withdrawal symptoms will let out screech-like cries, claw their faces and squirm.
Thomas Memorial Hospital delivers an average of 900 to 1,100 babies a year, and about 13 percent of those infants are diagnosed and treated with NAS, according to a Thomas Health news release.
To serve the growing number of infants born at Thomas with NAS, a separate care unit has been developed for the specialized care and education that will be incorporated into care plans that benefit the patient and their family.
“Over the past several years we’ve seen an increase in drug addicted babies because of the opioid issues in the state, so we have a special care [neonatal intensive care unit] NICU and the majority of the babies in that NICU were drug babies,” said Paige Johnson, director of marketing and public relations at Thomas Health. “We saw the need to have a special area dedicated for these drug addicted babies.”
The NAS Unit will have eight new beds, a family conference room for consultations with nursing staff and physicians, a kitchenette, overnight beds and specially-trained volunteer cuddlers whose job will be to hold the babies, rock them to sleep and give them a human connection when parents are not there.
In a regular NICU, babies stay in well lit, busy rooms; however, babies born with NAS must stay in a different environment.
“Right now, what Thomas is doing is not very different from other facilities in that these infants are typically in an NICU environment, which is more lighted,” said Heather Fouch, nursing director of Obstetrics and Newborn Services. “It’s a very busy space and so we found with research that these infants do better when they are in [a] dark, quiet environment, and this space is going to be able to do that.”
There are programs within Thomas Memorial Hospital like Grace’s Closet and Pregnancy Connections that provide education and basic needs like diapers, clothing, or wipes to parents in need of help.
“I think as providers and bedside caregivers what we’re looking at is caring for these families across the spectrum,” said Jill Ennis, clinical coordinator for the Obstetrics Unit. “We capture them in the beginning with [a program] called Pregnancy Connections, which is very intensive group and individual therapy.”
“Our nursing staff, myself included, provide education during the group sessions so we kind of get to know those patients [and] we get to form a relationship with them and so we see them maybe very early pregnancy all the way through delivery and postpartum,” she said.
Currently, the hospital plans to have about 90 employees coming in and out of the NAS Unit, but the area will have two registered nurses at a minimum at all times and patient care technicians that will be doing bedside care, Fouch said.
“Our nursing staff will go through specialized education and training that will allow them to use special therapeutic handling with these infants that we’re also not necessarily doing in a regular newborn nursery setting or maybe another baby unit,” Fouch said.
Visitation will also be permitted in the NAS Unit to encourage bonding and to strengthen the relationship between child, parent and caregiver which is different from a normal NICU that limits visitation time.
Funding for the NAS Unit came from community donations to the Thomas Health Foundation Campaign.
“In about two years, we were able to create this [NAS Unit] and then the foundation of directors agreed to support it with a gift of $250,000,” said Sally Barton, Executive Director of the Thomas Health Foundation.
“We’ve seen people that have recovered and are in recovery and working as professionals dedicated to helping others on that same path,” Barton said. “This program is just one more opportunity for the community to see and support Thomas Health.”
For more information about this new unit, visit thomashealth.org.