Helping a young mother through opioid addiction and pregnancy

Amanda Hensley holds her daughter Valencia.

Story highlights

  • Researchers estimated that every 25 minutes a baby was born dependent on opioids in 2012
  • Women who are pregnant should have medically-assisted opioid therapy

Amanda Hensley started abusing prescription painkillers when she was just a teenager. For years, she managed to function and hold down jobs. She even quit opioids for a while when she was pregnant with her now 4-year-old son. But she relapsed.

Hensley says she preferred drugs like Percocet and morphine, but opted for heroin when short on cash.
    By the time she discovered she was pregnant last year, she couldn't quit.
      "It was just one thing after another, you know — I was sick with morning sickness or sick from using," said Hensley, who is 25 and lives in Cleveland. "Either I was puking from morning sickness or I was puking from being high. That's kind of how I was able to hide it for a while."
      Hensley said she was ashamed and hurt, and she wanted to stop using but didn't know how. She had friends who would help her find drugs — even after they found out she was pregnant. But finding help to get sober and protect her child proved much more difficult, though.
      The number of people dependent on opioids is increasing and that includes women of child-bearing age, like Hensley. Researchers estimated that every 25 minutes a baby was born dependent on opioids in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available.
        By the time Hensley was about six months pregnant, she was living on couches, estranged from her mother and her baby's father, Tyrell Shepherd. Her son went to live with her mother.
        That's when Hensley reached out for help. One moment, she dialed to get her fix. The next, she called hospitals and clinics.
        "Nobody wants to touch a pregnant woman with an addiction issue," she said.
        Shepherd wasn't happy when he realized Hensley was taking opioids while pregnant. "If you don't care about yourself," he said, "have enough common decency to care about the baby you're carrying. Be adult. Own up to what it is you're doing and take care of business. Regardless of how bad you're going to feel, there's a baby that didn't ask to be there."
        After being rejected by two hospitals and several clinics, Hensley let herself go into withdrawal and then went to the emergency department of MetroHealth System, Cleveland's safety-net hospital.
        Under the auspices of a state-supported program, Hensley was prescribed Subutex — an opioid replacement drug that has helped her stop abusing drugs.
        Her baby girl Valencia was born three months later. Mom and baby had their own room at the hospital, where nurses encouraged snuggling and breastfeeding. The nurses were also on hand to drop liquid morphine into Valencia's mouth if needed, because the baby, too, had to be slowly weaned off of opioids.
        Hensley cries as she remembers those early days: "She wouldn't latch on — we couldn't get her to feed. I couldn't get her to stop crying. She was very fussy and I realized, 'I did that to her. I took her choice away.' And that's one thing I still need to work through because I haven't forgiven myself for that."
        Amanda Hensley's daughter Valencia at 3 months old.
        Hensley hasn't abused opioids in nine months, and Valencia is now about 6 months old. She has chubby baby cheeks and clear brown eyes the size of saucers.
        During a recent visit Valencia kept cooing and smiling — especially when her mother was nearby.
        "She started saying mamma," Hensley said. "So now, at night when she wakes up, that's what I hear: 'Mamma, ma, ma, mama.' "
        It's been a journey. Hensley said only within the past few months has she stopped having dreams about using opioids.
        Most physicians who specialize in addiction treatment agree that Hensley and her baby received the appropriate care. According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, women who are pregnant should have medically-assisted opioid therapy that at least temporarily replaces the drugs they are abusing with opioids that are more stable, like methadone. Withdrawal should be discourage