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My Baby Was Born Addicted to Drugs: Innovative West Virginia Clinic Nurses Newborns Through Opioid Withdrawal

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For nearly a decade, Rachael Kinder’s life had been ruled by heroin. But last year, after repeated attempts, the Milton, West Virginia, native managed to break her addiction via a mix of counseling and methadone, the medication-recovery drug. She reconnected with Dylan Hickey, a childhood friend and former addict, and they became a happy couple, looking to a future free of the pain and instability of opioid dependence.

And then Rachael, 27, found herself pregnant. “I felt so scared,” she tells PEOPLE. “I knew I had to stay on the methadone throughout my pregnancy, and no one wants their baby to suffer.”

The couple’s son, Kyrie Hickey, was born just before Christmas in a Huntington hospital, the unintended collateral damage to his mother’s addiction. Within three days he was showing signs of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) — a clutch of problems that occur when a baby has been exposed in the womb to opioids. Withdrawal wouldn’t be easy — not for Kyrie, his parents or the medical staff charged with caring for him.

Ali Smith

But this wasn’t really news to anyone. Residents of West Virginia have been gripped especially tightly by the opioid epidemic, with widening use among pregnant women in rural areas. The state has the highest rate of NAS in the nation, with 33 NAS births per 1,000 babies, according to Dr. Stephen Patrick, a physician and professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University.

Watch the full episode of People Features: Lily’s Place: Babies Born Addicted now on the new People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN or download the PEN app on your favorite device.

In Huntington, the drug-affected babies were flooding the local hospital’s neonatal therapeutic unit, with three and four babies to a room. The nurses began to consider the need for a dedicated center for these withdrawing infants — with their tremors, sneezing, itching and rashes, stomach cramps, diarrhea and light- and sound-sensitivity, says Mitzi Payne, a pediatric neurologist and a mother of seven. “We wanted a calmer place where we could offer a little more attention to these babies along with their moms.”

Kyrie Hickey

So in October 2014, Lily’s Place was born. It’s the nation’s first nonprofit infant recovery center that also provides services — and hope — for parents and families held hostage to addiction. 

When Kyrie was 6 days old, his parents decided to have their baby transferred from the hospital to Lily’s Place, a one-story brown building surrounded by a white picket fence on a quiet street less than a mile away. The newborn was settled into one of the center’s 16 small nurseries, into his own crib in a silent, dimly lit room. For the next month, he’d was quietly tended to by the 24-hour nursing staff while Rachael and Dylan learned to care for their baby during and after his opioid withdrawal. 

Family education is imperative, says Lily’s Place executive director Rebecca Crowder. “The parents of these babies already have compromised coping skills, trying to take care of their own situations, which puts the babies at higher risk,” she says.

Staff members train mothers and fathers to help their babies via therapeutic handling techniques, boosting skills and confidence. The parents learn CPR and basic child care on top of the specifics of NAS.

“None of this is easy,” says Crowder, “but we have this saying around here: ‘We have to love them through it.’ By treating them with respect and as parents, not as addicts, it makes them know that someone cares and helps them to succeed.”

Lily’s Place social worker Angela Davis is a lifeline, helping the parents — usually the mothers — with counseling and treatment, housing, food, clothing and baby supplies. The former corrections officer and child protective services worker says that when they do well, “I’m happy for them. When they don’t, it breaks my heart.”

Davis understands society’s contempt for addicted pregnant women. “A lot of people are outraged by them,” she says. “But almost none of these moms set out to get pregnant. Many of them have never known stability and their stories wrap back around to trauma. They have survived madness, terror and torture. There is no judgment you can put on them that they don’t already judge themselves for. They love their babies, and it was never their intention to hurt them.”

This acceptance and mercy are key. “In the hospital it was like, ‘Oh, you’re the reason your kid’s here — you and your drugs,’ ” says Dylan. “But at Lily’s Place, they’re not here to judge.”

In February, Kyrie’s parents took him home. “He doesn’t have any NAS symptoms anymore, and you’d never know he even went through the process,” says Rachael. “He’s cooing and trying to roll over, always smiling and happy.”

When she and Dylan need to calm Kyrie, they’ll often use a couple of the techniques they learned at Lily’s Place, swaddling him tightly and maneuvering him into a soothing position, swaying back and forth while holding him instead of bouncing him. 

Rachael is off the methadone and working on her sobriety. “I say ‘work’ because you have to put work into it every day,” she says. “It is still hard for me not to feel guilt, even though Kyrie is doing so great, but we’re putting that behind us and moving forward. Lily’s Place has made that a lot easier for us.”

That’s the cornerstone of Lily’s Place, says Crowder. “If we don’t help the parents, we’re not ensuring a bright future for the child.”