Fighting Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome with Storytelling

Med student seeks stories of those affected in Flathead Valley

By Clare Menzel

A mother wakes up in her hospital bed, and the nurses tell her she has had her baby. She does not remember much about it. She does not want to see her child. She wants relief.

She does not get relief; she spends the next few days in bed going through withdrawal from alcohol, methamphetamine, and pain medication. So does her baby. The most recent time the mother had abused these substances was the same night she gave birth.

She met her baby only once, when the nurses showed her how much pain the infant was in. “I made my baby so sick they had to take it away,” she wrote. “I never saw it again.”

The mother submitted this story, anonymously, through Facebook, to Ryan Braunberger, a second-year medical student at the University of Washington who recently completed a rotation at St. Joseph Hospital in Polson.

Braunberger hopes to use this story and others to increase awareness and decrease prevalence of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) in the Flathead Valley. NAS is an addiction and withdraw syndrome that afflicts newborns have been exposed to narcotics or opiates in utero.

In 2013, 13 percent of mothers in labor at St. Joseph tested positive in a drug screen. Nearly all opioid-exposed infants will display some NAS symptoms, which range from vomiting and fever to seizures and birth defects. Babies with NAS are also more likely to suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder later in life.

“I saw a guy in the [St. Joseph] emergency room going through withdrawal,” Braunberger said. “He was in complete agony. The pain was just uncontrollable, insane. To go upstairs and see an infant with those same symptoms.”

He trailed off. That night, the father of two decided he needed to do something.

Braunberger set out to assemble a booklet filled with stories from Flathead Valley mothers who used drugs or alcohol during their pregnancies, nurses who delivered babies with NAS, and people who were born with the syndrome.

“I think [the story collection will] be powerful,” he said, “especially with the Native American population, because storytelling is a huge way to get through to people and teach lessons. Another culture like that is the Hispanic population, which is growing heavily [in the Valley].”

Braunberger also cited the success of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program, which begins with storytelling.

“You stand up and tell your story, at every meeting,” he said. “That’s how you get away from feeling alone. [This project] is about letting them [mothers] know that they’re not alone, and they can get help.”

Braunberger plans to create a group for pregnant women struggling with addiction, and will also include in the booklet a list of phone numbers and services women can call for support. Once a substance dependency is identified, doctors can incorporate substance abuse treatment into the prenatal care plan.

The anonymous mother gave birth about five years ago. In the wake of losing her baby, she felt alone. She became depressed. She continued to struggle with her addiction. And then she got pregnant again.

“That [second pregnancy] is the only thing that helped me get clean,” she wrote. “Drugs just take over your life and all you want is them. It took watching my first baby suffer so bad and not wanting to see that again that helped cleaned me up.”

She is now the mother of a healthy little girl, who, as the mother writes, “is my whole life now.”

Submit your own stories about Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome here. 

Contacts for Local Support:

St. Joseph Hospital/Clinic 406-883-5680

St. Luke Hospital 406-676-4441
St. Luke Clinic Ronan 406-676-3600
St. Luke Clinic Polson 406-883-2555

Tribal Health Polson 406-883-5541

Lake County Public Health 406-883-7288
Lake County Chemical Dependency 406-883-7310
Flathead Valley CD Clinic  406-756-6453

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