Babies going through opioid withdrawal have a distinct way of crying: a short, anguished, high-pitched wail, repeated over and over. It echoes through the neonatal therapeutic unit of Cabell Huntington Hospital in Huntington, West Virginia. A week-old girl has been at it, inconsolably, since six o’clock this morning. At 10 o’clock Sara Murray, the unit’s soft-spoken, no-nonsense nurse manager, sighs. “This may be a frustrating day,” she says.
The opioid epidemic in the United States is painfully evident in hospital newborn units across the country. In 2012 nearly 22,000 babies were born drug dependent, one every 25 minutes, according to the most recent federal data. As the opioid crisis has escalated dramatically over the past five years, those numbers have surely climbed.
West Virginia, at two and a half times the national average, has the highest rate of deaths from drug overdose—mostly from opioids. Cabell County, which averaged about 130 overdose calls to 911 annually until 2012, received 1,476 calls last year and is on pace to reach around 2,000 this year. Emergency workers saved many of those people, including an 11-year-old, but inpatient treatment programs have long waiting lists. At Cabell Huntington Hospital, one in five newborns has been exposed to opioids in the womb.