Ultimate addiction: Mothers on meth
The woman’s newborn twins together weighed less than a gallon of milk.
One of the emaciated babies brought into the emergency room was four pounds and in shock from being born with an enlarged heart. The other, just two pounds, was suffering from an intestinal problem.
As they gathered around the miniscule children, hospital staffers looked over at the mother in disbelief. She was firing up a pipe, smoking methamphetamine inside the ER.
“The parents quickly disappeared from the scene,” said Dr. Michael Sherman. “The babies went into foster care.”
Sherman tells this story – which he said took place at a regional hospital he would not identify – because it illustrates “a pervasive problem all over northeastern California” with methamphetamine use during and after pregnancy.
At the University of California-Davis hospital’s intensive care unit for newborns in Sacramento where Sherman works, 9 percent of the admissions from 1990 to 2003 were meth babies.
“It’s an enormous expense for society,” said Sherman, who researches meth babies and their mothers. He is joined in his research by his wife, Jan, a nursing professor at the University of California in San Francisco.
“It’s one of the most devastating aspects of this whole (methamphetamine) problem,” he said.
Sherman said the scene could easily have happened in Nevada County, which he said ranks as a meth hot spot along with Sacramento, Oroville, Marysville, Yuba City, Chico, and Redding – towns he said routinely send meth babies to the UC-Davis newborn ICU.
Nevada County behavioral health therapist and drug counselor Kim Cuisinot agrees with Sherman about the depth of the problem locally and in the region. She organized the Mothers In Recovery program for women trying to stay off meth.
When Cuisinot speaks to groups about her efforts in the community, she gets a common question bathed with indignant tones.
“How can these women use drugs when they’re pregnant?”
With meth, “the drug takes away the maternal instinct,” Cuisinot said. “They cannot not take it. They care about their babies, but they just can’t stop.”
Cuisinot said meth has such a strong grip that addicts “lose the ability to make a choice.” The other problem is that people can make the drug themselves and do not have to go through the hassle of finding dealers like addicts of heroin and cocaine do.
Women have a particularly rough time getting off the drug because the man they are dependent on is often a meth addict and unless they leave him, they return again and again to the drug culture, Cuisinot said. As the addiction grows, women often become homeless and find themselves revolving in and out of jail.
“There’s so much wreckage; it’s almost impossible to stop using the drug and deal with the reality of their life,” Cuisinot said. What does wake meth addict moms is having their children taken from them by authorities, she said.
Gwen Eymann is a nurse practitioner for the Maternity Health Center at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital. She said most female meth patients she sees do not seek treatment until they have had a run-in with police or have their children taken by Child Protective Services.
“They experience a lot of guilt and know they’re hurting themselves and their babies, but the addictive power of the drug is so strong,” Eymann said. “They can’t quit easily.”
Eymann said meth patients are in denial about their use and are inconsistent about coming into the center. Although she sees more moms who smoke pot than use meth, the meth patients concern her more “because of the health risks and what the home environment is doing to them.”
Mary Graebner is the director of the Maternal and Child Health Program in Nevada County. She said of the 138 referrals made to the program in 1992, 48 – or 35 percent – were mothers or babies who tested positive for drugs at delivery or moms with drug-use histories.
Graebner was unsure how many of those referrals involved methamphetamine, “but we get a lot of them. They deliver and they’re tested and referred to us for follow-up, but half the time we can’t find them because they don’t want to be found.
“If you’re high on meth, you’re not capable of taking care of a child.”
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