Volunteers take action to comfort newborns suffering from opioid withdrawals

Posted at 2:17 PM, Dec 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-19 19:12:53-05

NORFOLK, Va. - Retired schoolteacher Gail Englert now volunteers many of her days inside Sentara Norfolk General Hospital.

Each week, she holds and comforts them.

“It’s one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done in my life,” she told News 3 reporter Brian Hill.

Unlike 18-day-old Claire, who was fast asleep, most of the newborns Englert holds need extra affection.

“Those poor babies did not choose that path,” she said.

Englert is one of 20 volunteers involved in a new program at the hospital - Arms of Love.

They cuddle all newborns but mainly babies with NAS, short for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.

“I think it’s horrifying, actually,” she mentioned as she held Claire.

Nurses said NAS is caused when a baby withdraws from opioids they are exposed to in the womb.

“They have this high-pitched cry, they are inconsolable, they have tremors,” Norfolk General Nurse Clinician Brittany Neupert said. “They’ll have loose stools, regurgitation.”

The nurses said so far this year, they’ve treated 41 NAS babies, compared to just 37 in all of 2018. They say that’s a 10% increase.

“They’re much quieter, they sleep longer, they’re able to tolerate stimulation,” Neupert said.

We’re told Norfolk General sees the most NAS babies at Sentara hospitals in Hampton Roads.

“They saw great outcomes. Babies are going home earlier. They also saw a decrease in the length of methadone, the medicine NAS babies are on,” Neupert said.

For Englert, she hopes her days of affection will stay with these newborns for years.

"Maybe when they get in school they won’t have such a difficult time,” she explained.

The program originally started at Sentara Obici in 2017.