How 2 Nurse Practitioners Decided To Help Babies Touched By Opioid Crisis

Sep 15, 2017
Originally published on September 15, 2017 10:10 am

Kyle Cook and Carla Saunders are neonatal nurse practitioners at a children's hospital in Knoxville, Tenn., where they've spent decades caring for infants. In the summer of 2010, their jobs began to change.

"We had six babies in the nursery who were in withdrawal," Saunders, 51, remembers.

The babies were inconsolable. They had tremors. "We couldn't fix it; we couldn't make these babies better," says Cook, 53. "Little did we know that was the tip of the iceberg. We had 10, and then 15, and then, at one point, 37 babies in the NICU that were withdrawing. We were bursting at the seams."

"We were completely unprepared and short-staffed," Saunders says. She remembers a nurse in tears holding a screaming baby. "We have got to do something," the nurse practitioner said, because what they were doing wasn't working.

Their small children's hospital in east Tennessee was at the time emblematic of the substance abuse problem happening all over the U.S. "And so we went looking to the experts, you know, let's call across the country, and let's find out what's the best way to treat these babies," Saunders says.

They discovered that nobody knew. "And who knew that we would become the experts?" Cook says.

The nurse practitioners wound up helping to establish one of the first treatment protocols for babies exposed to opioids and a program connecting mothers with treatment and therapy.

"When you see a baby, especially one that has been in your care for a long time, that has been off the charts in withdrawal, and you've done everything you possibly can and you finally get this baby acting like a normal baby, and then he smiles at you, and to know that you've made a difference in a mother's life — I mean, that will carry you through the darkest times, knowing that, my gosh, we did this," Clark says.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Liyna Anwar.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps. Today, a conversation that takes us back to the early days of the opioid crisis. Kyle Cook and Carla Saunders are neonatal nurses at a children's hospital in Knoxville, Tenn. They have spent decades caring for infants. At StoryCorps, they remembered when their jobs began to change.

CARLA SAUNDERS: Summer 2010, we had six babies in the nursery who were in withdrawal. It was so hard to watch these babies. They would have tremors. They're inconsolable. And we couldn't fix it. We couldn't make these babies better. And little did we know, that that was the tip of the iceberg. We had 10 and then 15 and then, at one point, 37 babies in the NICU that were withdrawing. We were bursting at the seams.

KYLE COOK: We were completely unprepared and short-staffed. And I remember a nurse in tears holding a baby, and this baby's just screaming. And she said, we have got to do something because what we were doing wasn't working. And here we were, just a small children's hospital in East Tennessee, and these babies were carrying the flag of the substance abuse problem in the United States. And so we went looking to the experts. You know, let's call across the country. And let's find out what's the best way to treat these babies. And then that moment of...

SAUNDERS: Nobody knows.

COOK: ...Nobody knows. And who knew that we would become the experts?

SAUNDERS: When you see a baby, especially one that has been in your care for a long time that has been off the charts in withdrawal and you've done everything you possibly can, you finally get this baby acting like a normal baby and then he smiles at you. And to know that you've made a difference in a mother's life, I mean, that will carry you through the darkest times knowing that, my gosh, we did this.

COOK: I know.

SAUNDERS: We did this.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES ATLAS' "PHOTOSPHERE")

KELLY: That's Kyle Cook and Carla Saunders, nurse practitioners at East Tennessee Children's Hospital. They helped establish one of the first treatment protocols for babies exposed to opioids, as well as a program connecting mothers with treatment, with therapy. Their StoryCorps interview will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES ATLAS' "PHOTOSPHERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.