KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — He’s less than two weeks old, but he shows the telltale signs of a baby agitated and in pain: an open sore on his chin where he’s rubbed the skin raw, along with a scratch on his left check. He suffers from so many tremors that he’s been placed in a special area so nurses can watch him around the clock in case he starts seizing — or worse, stops breathing.
The baby is one of many infants born dependent on drugs. He is being treated at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital in Knoxville, where doctors and nurses are on the front lines fighting the nation’s prescription drug epidemic. Drug abuse in the state is ranked among the nation’s highest, according to some estimates, a fact underscored by the number of children born with signs of drug dependence.
In 2008, East Tennessee Children’s Hospital treated 33 infants at the hospital for drug dependence, known as neonatal abstinence syndrome. Officials there expect that number to skyrocket to 320 this year. Since 2008, the hospital has treated 538 infants who are dependent on drugs. Last year, the hospital treated 283 babies suffering from dependence.
“It blew us away,” Andrew Pressnell, a nurse at the unit, said of the dramatic increase. “We didn’t know what to do.”
In most cases at the hospital, which specializes in treating drug-dependent infants and has shared its methods with other facilities nationwide, mothers had abused prescription painkillers or anti-anxiety medicines while pregnant, including hydrocodone, oxycodone, Xanax and Valium.
States across the U.S. have passed laws to crack down on prescription drug abuse, including in the Appalachian region, where the drugs were easily available as they flowed north from so-called “pill mills” in Florida. Federal authorities have stepped up prosecutions, and states including Kentucky and West Virginia have passed laws in an effort to curb the problem.