The baby whisperers

Couple helps local newborns through the pain of drug withdrawal.

Gary and Rita Muratalla have a standing date every Friday. The Elizabethtown, Kentucky, couple doesn’t go dancing or out to dinner; they spend hours at Norton Children’s Hospital holding and calming newborns going through the agonizing and painful process of drug withdrawal.

The pain-pill and heroin epidemics have spiked a 50-fold increase in hospitalizations of babies born physically dependent to drugs since 2000. These infants, who suffer from neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), can have a variety of symptoms, including persistent crying and jitteriness. They may also have vomiting, diarrhea, feeding difficulties, low-grade fevers, seizures — and even respiratory distress if they’re born prematurely. They can be extra-sensitive to noise and light.

In many cases, swaddling and rocking is the only way to calm these babies. Depending on the severity of the withdrawal symptoms, various medications also can be administered.

With the number of newborns with NAS exceeding record highs, volunteers are extremely important in helping these babies through the process.

During a recent Friday, Gary sat in a quiet corner of 3J, the unit where these babies are cared for. The only light came from a tinted window and a heart monitor next to a tiny crib. His silhouette showed he rocked a baby no more than a few weeks old. The child let out a faint cry as Gary patted his back and talked to him in a very soft, soothing tone. The baby fell asleep. All seemed right with the world.

“He just needed to be held and loved,” said Gary, a retired Army staff sergeant tank commander and now part-timer with the Radcliff housing authority. “I really care about all the babies here and their struggles. You feel for them. It’s a tough start to life.”

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Across the hall his wife, Rita, a retired school principal, stood holding another baby. This child, just over a month old, was a little fussier. Rita put his head under hers, rocking him gently from side-to-side. A nearby nurse noted it was the calmest the child had been all day.

“It’s unimaginable what these babies go through,” Rita said. “They’re in pain and they don’t know why. The slow withdrawal from drugs is their first experience of the world.”

Researchers point to steep increases in painkiller prescribing, including to pregnant women, as a reason for the uptick of babies born with NAS. Ten of the highest-prescribing states are in the region with the most drug-dependent babies: the South. The growing heroin problem in Kentucky and Southern Indiana is only making matters worse.

“This is a real issue in our community,” said Tonya Anderson, R.N., who has worked at Norton Children’s Hospital for more than 30 years. “For multiple reasons the family is unable to be at their baby’s bedside continuously to provide care. All babies – but especially these little ones – need to feel human touch and love. It is so important to their recovery and long-term success.”

Gary and Rita have been driving from E-town to Norton Children’s Hospital every Friday for a little more than a year. The couple, who have grown children of their own, first learned about the need for volunteers to rock NAS babies several decades ago and decided they wanted to participate when they retired.

Sometimes they’ll meet an infant only once. Other times, they might care for the same babies for several weeks within the quiet walls of 3J.

“We have the time and love to give,” Rita said. “It takes a great deal of patience to try to calm a baby in constant pain, but the effort is more than worth it. You know you’re making a difference in their very young lives.”

Rita admits that Gary usually gets the most difficult cases.

“He’s really the baby whisperer,” she said. “He has the ability to calm the most upset babies. It’s an amazing gift and really impressive to watch.”

Fortunately, Gary plans to use his gift even more in the near future.

“This is the highlight of my week,” he said. “Once I fully retire this summer, I plan to make it up here at least one more day a week. I can’t wait to devote more time to helping these babies overcome such difficult circumstances.”

Rita agreed.

“As a life-long educator, I truly believe all these babies need a fighting chance, and with that they can grow up, go to school and live successful lives,” she said. “Even if I have a very small impact on their world, it’s worth every minute.”

If you’d like to learn about the many different volunteering opportunities at Norton Children’s Hospital or any other Norton Healthcare hospital, visit NortonHealthcare.com/Volunteer. All volunteers must complete Norton Healthcare’s volunteer training program before becoming eligible to participate.


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