MADISON (WKOW) — A program to help combat the opioid crisis is marking just over a year helping women as they go through one of the most difficult times of their lives.
Researchers with the National Institute on Drug Abuse say the number of pregnant women using opioids in the U.S. has quadrupled in the past 15 years. In 2014, an estimated 32,000 babies were born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, known as NAS. That was a more than 5-fold increase since 2004.
In addition to that syndrome, opioid use disorder during pregnancy can stunt a baby’s growth, lead to a premature birth or even death, according to health experts.
Rebecca Foss has spent nearly half her life battling substance use.
“I had started using opioids after I was hospitalized with spinal meningitis. I had a really legitimate reason for using them,” she told out Madison affiliate WKOW 27 News. “It was a long time that ended up with me losing everything.”
When Foss became pregnant, she says she was terrified and didn’t know how to talk with her doctor about her opioid use.
“I had these questions about what would this do to my baby, will this hurt my baby?” Foss said. “There was a fear of talking and being open and honest about what I was taking, how much I was taking and would they treat me any differently knowing the truth.”
Dr. Susan Davidson with SSM St. Mary’s Hospital says she’s seen those fears as the opioid epidemic has grown among her patients.
“Statistically, the biggest increase in opiate use is especially white women of reproductive age in rural areas,” she said.
But the hospital has developed a partnership with Safe Communities that challenges the stigma surrounding mothers and addiction.
The pregnancy recovery coach program brings trained coaches to mothers who need them. Four mothers and one father can be called upon to visit expectant parents as they’re coping with recovery.
“When they have somebody that they can talk to, that’s a safe person, that’s not a medical person. It’s a great relief. And they also know they’re not alone, because they’re not,” Dr. Davidson said.
Rebecca Foss is one of them.
“I am very grateful today to, if I can, connect with anybody and offer hope,” she said.
Each coach has experienced opioid use disorder and has gotten into stable recovery, so they share their stories and help the families navigate the difficult moments.
“It’s really about offering hope in a situation that can be pretty terrifying and seem hopeless,” Foss said.
Experts say research shows shared experiences can go a long way toward healing and recovery.
The Wisconsin Association for Perinatal Care works with providers across the state on projects to help mothers who have substance use disorder.
“Addressing stigma through language, through education for providers about what’s available and what resources there are,” said executive director Eileen Zeiger. “How to get people from dependence to recovery has been really, really important.”
Zeiger says Marshfield Clinic has a new pilot program to train recovery doulas. She hopes it could some day be a model for care in the future.
“We’re hoping that once they kind of have some outcomes, or some results, that they can show … we’re hoping that that can be something that can be replicated throughout the state,” she said.
There are also programs in the works right now in Waukesha County and in La Crosse.
Zeiger hopes lawmakers could improve Medicare coverage to help parents struggling with substance abuse. Right now, the coverage only lasts 60 days after birth, but experts say patients really need care for at least a year.
The Safe Communities program has helped more than a dozen mothers since it started about a year ago. They’re hoping to expand to other hospitals in the area.
Rebecca Foss is doing well now and so are her children, but she knows it’ll be a life-long recovery for her. She hopes each story she tells will help mothers know they’re not alone.
“Who would have ever thought that something that I would have considered my deepest, darkest secret or my deepest, darkest past would actually be an asset to somebody,” she said.
The coaches can work with families for up to a year after birth.