TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - There's a huge problem hitting hospitals across southern Arizona -- babies born addicted to drugs.
We spent the past few months looking into the issue and learned the Tucson Medical Center for Children is rolling out a brand new unit to deal with the growing problem.
In an exclusive tour of the Newborn Intensive Care Unit at TMC, we found out 38 babies were born this year addicted to opioids.
MOBILE USERS: 10 Fast Facts about addicted babies can be found HERE.
In April 2016, the NICU treated 27 babies. Of those, 11 were born addicted to drugs and diagnosed as having neonatal abstinence syndrome. The syndrome can also affect babies who were exposed in utero to alcohol and tobacco. In all of 2015, 26 babies were born addicted to opioids.
"They scream and scratch their faces, they vomit and their stool --- it may break down the skin around their anus," explained Dr. Bruce Reddix, a neonatologist of TMC Children's Hospital.
That's not all, Reddix said as these babies are weaned off drugs, their symptoms can include high-pitched cries, shakes, jitters, poor weight gain and stiff arms and legs.
The 24-7 care needed for the babies can take its toll on the nurse task force unit, according to the unit's social worker.
"I am overwhelmed with it. A couple years ago you'd see one or two (addicted babies), now we have a whole unit," said Lori Groenewold.
In some cases, it can take a couple weeks for a baby to withdraw and months for others.
That's why TMC created a new calm and quiet room for these babies, it features cycled lighting, soft music, aromatherapy and very few visitors.
In addition, there are specialized staff members including doubled volunteer coverage caring for these infants, in need of being consoled, swaddled and rocked regularly.
The goal is to give these babies a stronger start in their first days of birth.
"We hope to sort of rewire their brains so that they may be a little bit more normal in the long run," Reddix said.
Right now, the progressive approach appears to be helping — but it could be another five years before doctors and nurses know the best way to treat babies suffering from the result of drug use in utero.
Other hospitals are beginning to take note. Last week, nurses from Phoenix area hospitals visited TMC for Children to learn more about the new unit.
In Arizona, the rate of newborns exposed to narcotics has increased 218 percent since 2008, according to the Department of Health Services.
Another aspect of TMC's program offers support for parents.
The social worker assigned to the unit works one-on-one with the parents, and often times the Department of Child Safety to make sure there is a plan in place with the family or extended family following the baby's recovery.
"It's challenging because there are so many different obstacles that come up," Groenwold said.
One challenge is making sure the mother gets the help she needs to live a healthy life.
Kimberly Tilley shared with Tucson News Now her struggle as a pregnant drug addict.
"I've never tried to get clean, and then I found out I was pregnant while in jail," Tilley said.
Right now, the 21-year-old is taking part in a court-ordered intensive drug rehab program for women at The Haven in Tucson.
"I wanted to get high again so I robbed the store I worked at," Tilley said.
The former Tombstone resident said she used a variety of drugs for the first five months of her pregnancy, and it wasn't until she was relocated to The Haven when she stopped.
She said she hopes her baby boy doesn't become part of a growing problem.
"Once you're in recovery, you're always in recovery," she said.
For volunteer opportunities in the NICU, visit www.tmcaz.com/volunteering.
A list of rehab facilities in the Tucson area can be found HERE.