Prenatal Program Is Powerful Antidote to Drug Problem : Motherhood: All of the 19 babies born to mothers in a voluntary prenatal class at Kaiser Permanente Hospital for substance abusers have tested drug-free at birth.


Pam Teak spent the late '70s and early '80s hanging out with rock stars, cruising in limousines and doing things most people will never experience, including starting what would be a 14-year addiction to cocaine.

"We had it all the time, it was easy to obtain," said Teak, now 31, who lived for three years with the lead singer of a popular rock group. "Back then it was socially acceptable, it was like everybody did it. Everybody I knew did it."

During those swirling days and nights of endless parties and drug use, Teak and the musician had a baby. The child, now 9, beat the odds and is healthy, despite her mother's heavy use of drugs in the first two months of pregnancy.

In 1990, 4 1/2 months into her third and most recent pregnancy, however, Teak decided to come clean.

She enrolled in a voluntary prenatal program at Kaiser Permanente Hospital that is helping women who have a history of substance abuse kick the habit during and after their pregnancies. Of the 19 babies born into the program, including Teak's baby, a boy now 8 months old, all have tested drug-free at birth.

"Women make major changes in their lives during pregnancy--they stop drinking coffee, start watching what they eat. We wanted to create a program that builds on that motivation," said Liza Webb, assistant director of nursing and researcher for Women Creating New Lives.

The program, funded for two years, has ended its first year of operation and might become permanent if it meets its goal of treating 40 women and continues its 100% drug-free results.

Test results can be deceiving, however: if the mother took drugs early in the pregnancy, the baby's test would be negative, but the child still might have suffered some of the consequences of exposure to drugs in the womb, Webb said.

"But the potential risk is much less than had (their mothers) continued to use," said Webb.

About 4,000 babies born in San Diego County each year test positive for illicit drugs, according to a 1990 San Diego County Grand Jury report, and medical experts know 4,000 more were exposed because the mothers admitted taking drugs. Nationally, 11% of newborns are believed to have been exposed.

Hospital costs for physical and neurological care to drug babies average $28,000 a child, and therapy to prepare them for kindergarten costs $40,000, the report states.

The county Department of Child Protective Services requires hospitals to test babies for drugs if their mothers admit to using drugs within the last year, are obviously under the influence while in labor or delivery, or have little or no prenatal care.

Based on these criteria, Kaiser tests 6% of newborns, said LaVon Oatsvall, director of Women Creating New Lives.

Some effects of chemical exposure are premature birth, low birth weight and tremors from withdrawal. These children may eventually be mentally retarded, have behavior problems and learning disabilities, among other serious health problems.

Alcohol is the most common drug used by Kaiser's 26 participants, whose ages range from 17 to 42, Oatsvall said. Crystal methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine and prescription drugs, or a combination have all been used by group members. Prescription drugs are more serious than street drugs, Oatsvall believes, because they are sometimes freely prescribed by doctors for pain and have the same effects as drugs such as heroin.

Because it is common for women to have unplanned pregnancies, drug users are likely to continue their drug habit because they do not know they are pregnant, Webb said. But, once they find out, women are reporting substance abuse on hospital questionnaires because of the extensive hospital media campaigns.

"They know enough to be concerned," Webb said.

Teak, who now lives in El Cajon with her husband of two years and three children, said she didn't find out she was pregnant with her first child until two months into her pregnancy. She stayed off drugs until her seventh month, when she used them once more before the baby was born.

"I remember thinking, 'I hope I didn't do any damage,' " Teak said. "When I got home from the hospital, I did cocaine. I was breast feeding. No one told me that it could be transferred through breast milk, I had no idea it was going through to her.

"With my (second baby), I kept telling myself a little won't hurt because that's what people do. They talk themselves into things.

"I did think that I possibly could do damage, but I guess when you're in that state you justify what you are doing. It wasn't a good (decision), but that's what I did."

Teak's second child, now 21 months, was born with a rare genetic disease not caused by her drug use.

In order to join Women Creating New Lives, the women must be Kaiser patients and have a history of drug abuse. They can begin the program at any time during their pregnancy.

The group meets twice a week for what Oatsvall calls "psycho-education": a combination of education and therapy sessions about chemical dependency, parenting and self-esteem workshops.

Oatsvall and Webb find that something as simple as craft projects can inspire confidence, an element often lacking in the women.

Because the potential to slip back into drug use increases after the babies are born, the program continues with postnatal support up to 18 months after birth, Oatsvall said.

Teak succumbed to her addiction and last used cocaine Dec. 1. She recognizes the relapse as a part of the recovery process, but has hope she can kick the habit for good.

The drug-free period during the pregnancy is not considered true recovery because the women are staying off the drugs for the baby.

"It's much harder to maintain (sobriety) because they have to change totally, they have to stop for themselves," Oatsvall said. "Some have relapses. I don't consider that failure. It's a part of addiction."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World