May 6, 2017
SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. – Dr. Jennifer Maddron was drawn to obstetrics in her third year of medical school after she witnessed her first delivery. Guided by her Christian faith, it became a calling, she said.
But a few years after setting up her practice, just a few miles from the Smoky Mountains and Dollywood, the 40-year-old physician started seeing pregnant women her faith and training did not prepare her to help.
Dr. Maddron knew how to treat women during pregnancy. But she didn’t know how to respond to their opioid addiction.
“I would give out my cellphone number and they would call me in the middle of the night, and I’d say ‘you can do this. It’s not going to kill you,’” she said. “Then I realized it’s not that easy.”
Tennessee has one of the highest rates in the nation of babies born to addicted mothers. Most of those babies are born in eastern Tennessee, where Maddron’s LifeSpring Women’s Healthcare practice is located in a small strip mall of medical offices a few miles off the main road to Pigeon Forge.
Babies born to addicted mothers stay in hospitals longer and suffer distressing withdrawal syndromes that cause their bodies to jerk and shudder. They cry uncontrollably. They suffer birth defects and development problems at higher rates than other babies.
Those infants’ struggles often come with a financial cost to taxpayers. TennCare data shows the state spends $48,854 per NAS (neonatal abstinence syndrome) baby versus $4,951 for non-low birth weight babies in 2014. A baby born with NAS spent an average of 24 days in the hospital, compared with two days for a healthy baby.
Their births often signal an end to families rather than a beginning. Child welfare officials are called in. In fact, Tennessee saw a 50 percent surge in parental rights terminations between 2010 and 2014, in large part because of maternal drug use, experts say.
As a solo provider with a small-town practice, Maddron has fumbled through the opioid crisis without a map. Her patients told her they wanted to stop using, but kept returning to homes where husbands, siblings or parents were abusing opioids. At Narcotics Anonymous meetings, they’d feel judged as pregnant women, she said. Some of her patients landed in jail during their pregnancies. There were no other doctors Maddron could refer them to. Primary care physicians are reluctant to treat pregnant women already under the care of an OB-GYN.
“My patients are a package deal,” she said. And there are still scarce resources that address the whole package when it comes to opioid addiction.
Read the full story in the Tennessean.
Anita Wadhwani is an investigative reporter at The Tennessean. She joined the newspaper in 2001. Her previous beats have included diversity, religion, healthcare and social issues.