In his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump praised and lionized an Albuquerque police officer for adopting the baby of a woman he encountered shooting up heroin, pregnant and homeless. Trump never mentioned the name of the woman.
In our practices in Española and in Santa Fe, we see many incredibly heroic fathers and mothers who are working to overcome their addictions and become good parents to their children. They are seldom held up as examples of courage and compassion in our community, but we are impressed with their bravery and commitment to their children and their recovery every day.
In our state, we are lucky to have treatment options for pregnant women and their partners in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Española. Medication-assisted therapy (with buprenorphine or methadone) works well and is the first-line preferred treatment during pregnancy. Babies whose mothers are treated with these medications are less likely to be born with withdrawal symptoms, have lower risks for premature birth or low birth weight, and their mothers are far more likely to receive a complete course of prenatal care.
The vast majority of pregnant women are highly motivated to take care of themselves during treatment, and many are able to become drug-free and stay drug-free long-term. Studies have shown that over 50 percent of pregnant women using drugs will actually quit on their own, but without treatment, many will relapse postpartum. Abrupt cessation of opioids, whether heroin or pills, can jeopardize the health of the fetus and puts women at risk for overdose death. If we can identify women who are using opioids as early as possible during pregnancy and offer them appropriate treatment, most can turn that into a lifetime of sobriety.
In our experience, most mothers-to-be with drug-use histories or opioid dependence can successfully enter recovery during their pregnancy and turn their lives around to become the parents they very much want to be. To support their success, they need caring and well-trained medical providers, compassionate and skilled behavioral health care, and support to meet their social needs.
The mother in the president’s story — her name is Crystal Champ and she has now been sober for more than 40 days — was homeless. We see many of our patients struggling with housing, violence, poverty and unemployment. They need safe places to raise their families and jobs. Often, a past history of incarceration hangs over them and makes it that much more difficult to find employment or housing.
La Familia Medical Center in Santa Fe, The University of New Mexico Milagro and FOCUS programs in Albuquerque, and El Centro Family Health in Española and Northern New Mexico all provide care for pregnant women using drugs. We are proud to see these babies grow up happy and healthy with mothers who have overcome many challenges to stay drug-free. In our eyes, they are the real heroes, deserving of our recognition and praise.
We hope that our entire community will join us in supporting their success and recovery, especially employers and landlords. While adoption may be an option and what the biological mother truly desires in some cases, offering real treatment and support and keeping families together is a much better solution for most of our patients and the whole community.
Leslie Hayes, M.D., is a doctor treating opioid-using pregnant women in Northern New Mexico at El Centro Family Health. Wendy Johnson, M.D., is a family medicine specialist at La Familia Medical Center.