By Jamie Null
The city of Huntington, WV, is one of the hardest hit places—if not the hardest hit place—in America when it comes to the current drug epidemic. This addiction crisis clearly hurts not only the users but their families, friends, co-workers, employees and community members. It also has devastating impacts on another, more vulnerable population: unborn and newborn babies.
Since 2014, West Virginia—Huntington, in particular—has seen a significant increase in the number of infants born with prenatal exposure to addictive substances with almost one in seven new mothers in Cabell County having abused drugs prior to or during pregnancy. In an effort to address this ever-increasing number, three West Virginia women joined forces in October 2014 to open Lily’s Place, the only Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) center in the U.S.
The center, which treats approximately 100 infants suffering from NAS each year, provides them with medical care and offers non-judgmental education and support services to families and communities to help manage the needs of these babies.
Creating a Safe Place
Lily’s Place began when two Cabell Huntington Hospital nurses, Sara Muncy and Rhonda Edmunds, noticed an increase in the number of babies born with drug exposure. The hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit wasn’t a good environment for these infants because it was overstimulating and there were already too many critically ill babies in the nursery, leaving too few beds for the NAS infants. The two nurses began researching how to care for NAS infants, even traveling to the Pediatric Interim Care Center in Kent, WA.
“Upon return, they decided to do something to help these babies,” says Rebecca Crowder, executive director of Lily’s Place. “They enlisted Mary Calhoun-Brown, who was a volunteer cuddler at the hospital. These three women worked very hard to create Lily’s Place. From their efforts, the Neonatal Therapeutic Unit at Cabell Huntington Hospital was also created. This is a unit that is specifically for babies with NAS.”
Providing A Holistic Approach
From medical service to social work, Lily’s Place can provide care for any infant affected by drugs. Crowder says the medical staff takes a holistic approach to wellness, meaning they care for infants as they are going through the withdrawal process but also care for their families as they deal with the environmental issues of having an NAS baby.
The weaning process varies, depending on what types of drugs the infant was exposed to in the womb. Crowder estimates that the average timeframe for the process is three to four weeks, but some can last up to two months. Each baby at Lily’s Place has his or her own room much like a nursery at home, and staff can introduce light and sound slowly. There, parents can bond with their baby in a safe environment.
While offering short-term care, the staff also provides training, connects families with recovery groups and offers many other services during an infant’s stay at Lily’s Place. During their stay, it is important that the families and staff create a bond and maintain a relationship.
“Many mothers need long-term care and counseling to balance the harm of trauma and drug addiction,” says Crowder. “The services provided by Lily’s Place do not end when infants graduate from our program.”
Two follow-up clinics each month are conducted for parents and infants who have graduated from the program. Dr. Mitzi Payne, a pediatric neurologist, assesses the infants for neurological symptoms, while a social worker works with the parents and caregivers. All participants are given baby supplies, and there is no time limit or age restriction for the follow-up visits.
Leading the Way
The success of Lily’s Place has reached national fame as a center leading the way for treatment for NAS babies in the U.S. Word of its success has even reached the White House, resulting in a recent visit from First Lady Melania Trump. Crowder intends for the facility’s education and awareness efforts to continue spreading throughout the nation.
Even though Lily’s Place is located in Huntington, it is open to any baby born in West Virginia. While there are no plans for expansion into other counties in the Mountain State, others have contacted Crowder about replicating the Lily’s Place model, and a replication plan is available as a guide.
“We are truly one of a kind,” says Crowder. “I think we are showing that even though West Virginia has a drug epidemic on its hands, we are meeting the problem with supports and solutions. We are fighting back against this epidemic and trying to ensure that future generations learn a better way. We want to break that generational cycle of addiction. West Virginia is owning the problem and looking at what we can do to solve it. There are many programs in our state that are positive supports to those suffering from addiction. We are just one of the many organizations working to heal our state.”
Fostering Happy Endings
Luke 12:27 says, “Consider the lilies how they grow; they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of those.”
This verse is special to the founders of Lily’s Place, who named the center after a special “lily” one of them personally encountered.
“We connect Lily’s Place with the verse in the Bible—that God cares for the lilies of the field, and He will care for these babies,” says Crowder.
There are 20 full-time and part-time nurses and patient assistants and an administrative staff of four, including a social worker, at Lily’s Place. Crowder believes they must increase their efforts to combat the epidemic of drug use and spread preventive awareness among families, caregivers and the community.
“We will continue to serve our community until we are no longer needed, which is a day I hope to see,” she says.
Some days are tougher than others for the staff. They see sadness, pain and confusion, but there is also joy when a healthy baby goes home with a healthy family.
“There may not always be the perfect healthy ending, but I believe because of what we are doing here, there are definitely more happy endings,” she says. “We want these babies to have a strong start and successful future. For this to happen, we need to make sure the parents are getting what they need to be successful in their recovery and everyday life situations. None of this is easy, but we have a saying around here: we have to love them through it. By treating families with respect and as parents, not addicts, it lets them know someone cares and helps them succeed.”