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Amid the cries for help, community efforts to solve the problem have only just begun

Locally, hospital staff have been screening for newborns who may have been exposed to heroin in the womb, just one more facet of a complex and growing addiction problem in Franklin County and beyond.
Recorder/Micky Bedell

Locally, hospital staff have been screening for newborns who may have been exposed to heroin in the womb, just one more facet of a complex and growing addiction problem in Franklin County and beyond. Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

GREENFIELD — Newborn babies in withdrawal scream.

“I hear that scream in my sleep,” says Dr. Ruth Potee, a local family practitioner who is among those leading the charge against the scourge of addiction in Franklin County. Many days in the little tiny nursery in Baystate Franklin Medical Center, according to Potee, there’s a baby withdrawing from opioids.

It’s gotten that bad.

The problem intensified this winter in the hospital’s maternity ward, mirroring a surge in suspected heroin and opioid overdose deaths among teens and adults in the region. In December and January, nurses screened eight babies and found four in need of treatment — compared to one or two a year in recent memory — according to Linda Jablonski, assistant nurse manager of The Birthplace.

Babies exposed to heroin or opium-derived painkillers in the womb are just one facet of a complex and growing problem in Franklin County and elsewhere in the nation.

With no single solution to a mostly underground problem cutting across all social and economic lines, occupations and ages, various agencies, families and individuals are now struggling with the problem where it surfaces — in homes, hospitals, courts and jails. A growing number of those facing the situation call for increased prevention efforts and more treatment for addicts who want to stop but can’t escape a drug that biochemically ensnares the human brain and never quite lets go.

Now that we hear the screams, what can we do?

Maternity staff at the Greenfield hospital have responded by developing a screening system to identify soon-to-be mother addicts who may be in need of treatment, and to connect these women with help.

Other efforts have begun or are continuing at various levels, from local coalitions of concerned citizens, to recovering addicts supporting one another, to a growing number of legislative bills and budget requests at the state and federal levels. It’s a communitywide problem that seems to require communitywide solutions.

The hospital intends to begin screening pregnant women; the courthouse — where most defendants have underlying drug problems — is launching a social service office; the county jail — 80 percent of whose inmates have substance abuse problems — continues to ramp up treatment for prisoners; the specialized drug courts continue in Greenfield and Orange; and the state trial court is pushing for money to provide treatment beds and clinical services for the addicts caught up in the courts. But all those involved caution that they’re only reaching a fraction of the people affected.

Meanwhile, addiction continues to kill people and destroy lives, and even long-established efforts in other parts of the state can point only to a few individual success stories and lives saved as the problem grows.

Affects us all

Intentional abuse of and innocent exposure to addictive prescription painkillers like Percocet, OxyContin and Vicodin have fueled the resurgence of heroin, with the long-marginalized drug now a typical second step after the user has become dependent on its more expensive, legally manufactured relatives.

Experts say the problem affects everyone from depressed, naive or thrill-seeking young people to unsuspecting surgery or chronic pain patients who may descend gradually into addiction at any age through dependence on legitimate prescriptions.

This diversity is reflected in the response. Willing groups and individuals help where the problem is visible to them, while a hidden majority are left to their own devices, to be ruled by their addictions or to look for treatment that may not be there.

The two consistent efforts to stem the crisis call for better prevention at one end and an open door to recovery programs at the other.

In Franklin County, what had been a steadily growing heroin problem over the past three to six years abruptly worsened in a space of months this fall and winter, even as efforts multiplied to find an answer. The surge in deaths across the Northeast — and among celebrities — has brought wide attention, and state governments have begun to take steps.

Gov. Deval Patrick declared a public health emergency on March 27, taking several initial steps and tasking an interagency council to explore how we can help solve this problem.

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