Anonymous $2.5-million donation will benefit drug-addicted babies

- A massive donation is going to help some of the most vulnerable in our community: Babies who are born addicted to drugs. An anonymous donor gave $2.5 million to Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital to expand its services for treating addicted babies. 

With the number of opioid-addicted babies soaring across the country and here in Florida, it's money that couldn't come at a better time.

"He's my light. He's my everything," said Kerri Dean, looking at her 8-month-old son, Elijah.
When she holds Elijah, she clings to their future. "He basically saved me. He's the only reason I made the decision that I made," Dean said.

A back issue from her teen years grew into an opioid addiction, which led to harder drugs. "One a day, and then it progressed to three a day, and then, I was addicted," Dean said, "and then, found out I was pregnant. It's extremely scary because you never want to put a child through something like that."

Fortunately, she got help from a methadone clinic to safely wean herself from the drugs as her baby grew. "When you're pregnant and weaning yourself off drugs, you're liable for a miscarriage," Dean said. "You blame yourself a lot of the time."

For those who don't get help, birth can be terrifying. Videos show newborns with their legs shaking uncontrollably, suffering the effects of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS. 

The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration reported 4,215 babies in 2016 were exposed in the womb to addictive drugs, up more than 1,700 from the last year.  Hillsborough County had the most in the state with 579 babies. Pinellas County was 6th with 176 and Sarasota County was 15th with 114.

"These babies cry incessantly, they are difficult to pacify, they do not eat well, they are awake for most of the time," said Dr. Prabhu Parimi, director of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Maternal, Fetal & Neonatal Institute. 

All Children's in St. Pete treats 120 to 150 babies with NAS each year. Their work is getting boost thanks to an anonymous $2.5-million donation. The money will go toward opening an NAS follow-up clinic on the St. Pete campus, while enhancing an existing one in Sarasota.

"We provide occupational therapy, speech therapy, and then of course, a pediatrician there as well, and we will also provide neurodevelopmental testing starting at 1 year of age," said 
Katie Wooten, B.S.N., R.N., the nurse coordinator for both clinics. 

The goal is to "bridge the gap," ensuring babies continue progressing through early childhood.

"Are they sitting, are they talking, are they having behavioral issues, are they at risk for other neurodevelopmental issues?" Parimi said. "We want to support them through this continuum and we want to support their babies."

"It changed my life," Dean offered.

Mom and baby are healthy and happy. After her treatment wraps up in May, Dean looks forward to helping other moms do the same.

"It's really hard to do but it's doable. I am living proof. It's doable," she added. "This is something that is happening and we need to make a change. I think this is a great start to that change."

Dean is currently studying to be a drug counselor. She will also be a peer mentor with the new Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Clinic at Johns Hopkins so she can encourage and support moms in her same shoes.

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