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Cincinnati program offers addicted moms help, hope

CINCINNATI (AP) — Nobody thinks methadone is good for a baby, but it's better than heroin.

That's how Keean Lankford and Ronald Stokes started life: dependent on the opiate their mothers took to fight their addiction to heroin and prescription painkillers.

Their mothers are in Good Samaritan Hospital's HOPE program — Helping Opiate-addicted Pregnant women Evolve — which hospital officials started five years ago as a way to help drug-dependent mothers get clean.

"These babies pull at your heartstrings," said Dr. Kathy Wedig, the hospital's director of neonatal follow-up. "You care for them and you think, 'This is not right.'"

In the Faculty Medical Center at Good Samaritan Hospital, Priscilla Conley and Tosha Hill give hope to drug-addicted mothers-to-be who want a better life for their babies.

Doctors do check-ups, and then Conley and Hill direct women to drug treatment programs and connect the mothers to services such as counseling, housing and financial support.

It works because the help comes in a nonjudgmental setting, said Conley, substance abuse coordinator for Good Samaritan Hospital's perinatal programs.

"Heroin is definitely an epidemic, and it's going to take the whole community to improve the lives of these women," said Hill, HOPE's perinatal social worker. "Working together to help moms become sober will enhance the lives of our young children.

"We went from just knowing we had women who were using drugs to being able to help them," she added.

In fiscal 2008, HOPE was involved in 44 deliveries. Last fiscal year that jumped to 94 deliveries. The program is on pace to help more than 100 women this year.

Until now, outcomes weren't tracked, but a March of Dimes grant allowed the program to hire a community health worker in February who will follow up with the women for a year after delivery.

Pregnant women in the program are directed to methadone treatment centers to kill the craving for more dangerous drugs such as heroin and prescription painkillers, Wedig said. The babies, though, are born methadone dependent.

Some babies show relatively few symptoms and don't need treatment related to methadone, but others exhibit signs of addiction.

In those cases, the babies can spend three to four weeks in the intensive-care nursery while they're weaned off methadone with smaller and smaller doses of the drug.

"Methadone attaches to the same receptors (as heroin or opioid painkillers), but for a longer period of time, so it stops the craving for heroin and prevents withdrawal effects," Wedig said. "But it's still a drug with lots of bad side effects."

Patients don't get the same euphoria from it, so they can maintain a normal routine.

The babies also get what Wedig calls "environmental treatment" — cuddling, quiet surroundings and low light — to help ease withdrawal.

For some moms, the infant is a motivator to take back control of their lives, Wedig said. Others are so deep into their habit that their only purpose in life is to get the drugs, she said.

"The HOPE program is the one nonthreatening environment for pregnant women to get started in replacement therapy," Wedig said. "They have people who understand addiction is a medical issue, not just a social issue where everyone addicted is a bad person."

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Ashley Wilson was on a collision course with death when she found HOPE.

Last April, the 25-year-old Trenton woman was in withdrawal, the prescription painkillers she bought on the street in short supply. Driving with her boyfriend, Donald Stokes, in the passenger seat, they fought over using the last of their cash to feed her addiction, Stokes said.

Wilson was so mad at Stokes' refusal she raced through a red light in Middletown, scaring Stokes.

Stokes, 46, took her to Fort Hamilton Hospital. Doctors there had a surprise for Wilson: She was four weeks pregnant.

She threatened to kill herself. That landed her an involuntary stay in the hospital's mental health ward.

"That made me realize I wanted to live, and I wanted to get clean," Wilson said.

It was time. She had been addicted to drugs since high school, had dabbled in heroin and been kicked out of her mother's home.

At 17, she had aborted a child. She lost another pregnancy in 2011. Fort Hamilton Hospital doctors directed her to Sojourner Recovery Services, a West Chester methadone clinic. There she learned about HOPE.

"I had to get in the program," Wilson said. "Otherwise the state was going to take my baby."

May 1, 2012, was her first clean day.

She credits Hill and Conley with helping her stay clean.

Wilson gave birth to Ronald on Dec. 26. She stayed in the hospital three days. Ronald stayed five days.

"To see the transformation was awesome," Hill said. "I watched her grow through the pregnancy. It shows the program makes a huge difference in the lives of the women we serve."

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A rash marks Keean Lankford's chin because the 6-pound, 6-ounce baby repeatedly rubbed it against the pink and blue-edged blanket in which he's swaddled.

He occasionally trembles. A dribble of formula slips down his cheek, his suck weak, during a morning feeding.

Still, his nurse is pleased with the 3-day-old's progress this February day. Keean is doing well, considering he was born addicted to methadone.

His mother, Deanna Dougan, 25, of Colerain Township, takes 80 milligrams of methadone a day.

Dougan has been addicted to heroin since high school. Her friends dabbled in heroin, so she tried it, too. "When you agree to do it, you don't know what you're getting into," Dougan said.

At 18, Dougan got pregnant, managing to stay off the drug during the pregnancy. But her resolve didn't last.

When Dougan realized heroin was destroying her life, her daughter was 2.

"I didn't want to fall down in the hole like everyone else did," Dougan said. So Dougan started a daily dose of methadone. She is now clean of heroin.

That was four years ago; however, Dougan still takes methadone daily.

Her 15-month-old son, T.J., was born addicted to methadone. So was Keean.

She found HOPE while seeking prenatal treatment at Good Samaritan Hospital while pregnant with Keean. Hill and Conley showed Dougan where to get a car seat and where to find an affordable crib. They gave her encouragement. They listened, Dougan said.

Keean struggled. Illness twice landed him in the hospital.

Dougan is hoping to begin weaning herself off methadone in the coming weeks, a long process where she will decrease her dose in tiny increments.

"I want to live a normal life," Dougan said. "I never really had the chance to do that."

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