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Niswonger Children’s Hospital partners with Families Free to provide health services to mothers, babies affected by opioid abuse
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Niswonger Children’s Hospital partners with Families Free to provide health services to mothers, babies affected by opioid abuse

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Families Thrive opened at Niswonger Children’s Hospital about four weeks ago and the CEOs of both organizations hope the collaboration will be the beginning of the end of neonatal abstinence syndrome in the region.

Niswonger Children’s Hospital CEO Lisa Carter said she and Families Free Executive Director Lisa Tipton have a passion to see NAS eradicated.

“And now that Families Thrive has opened, maybe we can figure out how to put a stop to NAS altogether,” Carter said. “It’s always been a challenge to get some of the moms to open up but Families Thrive provides a non-threatening environment where they feel free to talk. And with Families Thrive here on the Special Care Unit, we can reach the moms on a different level.”

NAS occurs when a baby is exposed to drugs like opioids in the womb before birth. Babies can be born withdrawing from the drug taken and many experience tremors, diarrhea, dehydration, sweating, irritability, sensitivity to light and sound and problems with sleeping. Many require specialized care.

After an addicted mom gives birth, there is a unique window of time when she realizes that she needs help, according to Tipton. And having someone to talk with during that time is critical.

“Everything about having a baby is fresh and new to a lot of these moms,” Tipton said. “And when they see that their newborn is having struggles due to their own addiction, it becomes very real to them. And that’s the optimum time for us to meet them.”

Families Thrive is a patient-driven, voluntary program designed to address the specific problems that NAS babies and their families face. It helps equip the hospital staff to work with the mothers to encourage breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact. It is also designed to help connect the families to the programs they may need when they leave the hospital.

The Special Care Unit includes 17 private rooms designed to fit each infant’s needs. The lights can be dimmed or calming music can be played in the room. The room’s privacy also encourages the mothers to breastfeed, which increases the bonding time and can also help ease withdrawal issues.

On average, about 30 percent of the babies in the neonatal intensive care unit at the children’s hospital suffer from NAS. And Carter said after the mothers deliver a drug-exposed baby something inside them clicks.

“They want to do better. They want to give their babies better. And oftentimes once the families are discharged they fall through the cracks,” she said. “So the focus of the program is on the baby’s success — Families Thrive helps the moms to realize that everything they do is for the sake of the baby. So the baby, the mom and family can thrive.”

Tipton added that Families Thrive staff is there when the birth is unfolding. And having a room with a nicely decorated table, cookies from local bakery Buttermilk Sky, and assorted small gifts for the mothers are key to reaching them.

“The birth story is a whole different world than the world of NICUs [neonatal intensive care units] and DCS [Department of Children Services] and protocols,” Tipton said. “That’s why it was so important for us to have a spot on the unit where moms can talk to other moms, get some parenting education and get some support.”

Before Families Thrive was available, Tipton’s staff had to receive a referral from the hospital to see the mothers. And in some situations they were contacted by DCS after the mothers were discharged from the hospital.

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“And the majority of the time DCS wasn’t involved until there was already allegations of neglect, abuse, or other challenges in the home,” she said. “So by the time we got connected with them, we were several steps removed from that unique window of time to connect with the mom.”

The Families Thrive staff consists of Woven and Families Thrive Coordinator Rachel Adams and Tipton, who is a licensed alcohol and drug counselor. The program offers a parenting day, a motivational group day and an art day for the mothers on the unit.

The parenting day gives them the opportunity to enhance their parenting skills and ask questions. The motivational group focuses on substance abuse and how the moms would change their lives if they had the opportunity.

And during the art day mothers create something they can take home with them. Tipton said earlier in the month they made a collage representing what they want their lives to look like when they go home from the hospital.

Carter said hospital staff members are excited about the program.

“It’s [the program] having a huge impact on our moms and our staff,” she said. “It gives the moms some fun activities to do. And it gives the nurses some help — because the services Families Thrive supply fall are outside the realm of what the nurses can provide.”

Tipton added that the 20-hour-a-week program gives the moms a peek at what is offered at the expanded Families Free program at the organization’s location at 2319 Browns Mill Road, Suite C, Johnson City.

Families Free is a faith-oriented, community-based organization in Johnson City that provides free treatment, education and intervention services to women and families.

Tipton said Families Free is mandated through DCS or the courts, and Families Thrive is completely voluntary.

“Since Families Thrive is voluntary, the moms feel like they have some control over their lives and the lives of their babies,” she said. “The moms are very receptive and thankful that the hospital has made this available.”

Carter added that the program would not be available had it not been for a $100,000 donation from Johnson City couple Mike and Nancy Christian in May 2017.

“The Christians gave the money to fund Families Thrive,” Carter said. “It was their passion to figure out a way to help NAS babies — figure out a way to stop NAS altogether. But until we can reach that point, the Christians wanted to help these babies.”

Tipton added that she met with the couple and was able to get a sense of what they wanted to accomplish.

“I met with them and was able to feel their heart,” Tipton said. “They wanted to give a gift to the hospital that would impact the babies and the community. They talked about how God blessed them with their children and great-grandchildren and how heartbroken they were about what these babies were going through. And they wanted to help. They wanted to be a part of the babies’ healing — they wanted to help.”

tchildress@bristolnews.com

276-645-2512

Twitter: @TChildressBHC

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