When Rachel Hernandez learned she was pregnant, she was struck by a strong combination of emotions. She was excited about becoming a mother and entering a better chapter of her life, but also apprehensive. Hernandez knew that to be the parent she wanted to be, she would need to overcome her longtime substance use disorder.
“I was happy because I thought it was a real chance to address substance misuse,” she said. “I hadn’t been able to do it for myself, so I thought having a child would be my saving grace. I was also upset about giving up drugs, which sounds horrible, but addiction is such an ugly thing.”
Despite her best intentions, Hernandez relapsed while pregnant and was arrested. While incarcerated, she was brought to Our Lady of the Angels Hospital in Bogalusa so she and her unborn baby could receive proper care. That’s when she learned about the hospital’s Rise Up substance abuse intervention program for pregnant women. She was immediately interested in signing up.
“I was nervous because I thought everybody was going to look at me like I was a horrible person,” Hernandez recalled. “They were actually the complete opposite. They were so compassionate and motivating. They really wanted the best for me and my daughter. They were supportive and never judgmental at all.”
Hernandez continued receiving treatment at the hospital throughout her pregnancy and as she addressed her legal issues. Because of her addiction, her daughter Raedynn was born addicted and immediately had to begin a detox program. At the same time, Hernandez was undergoing her own recovery process, taking it more seriously than ever before.
“She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” Hernandez said of seeing her daughter for the first time. “I was overcome with love and happiness, but also overcome with these horrible feelings of guilt because I had to watch my innocent baby detox and know that it was because of me. I knew right then that I had to do things differently.”
Patsy Welch, Our Lady of the Angels’ labor and delivery nurse director, was by Hernandez’s side the whole time. As with all new mothers with opioid use disorder, Welch encouraged Hernandez to breastfeed, since it is shown to result in better outcomes for babies. She also offered encouragement as Rachel and Raedynn roomed together to increase their bond.
“You could tell how motivated Rachel was,” Welch said. “She had the drive to do everything we asked her to do.”
Dr. Ronak Shah, an Our Lady of the Angels OB/GYN who treated Hernandez, said that before Rise Up, many pregnant women were scared to seek addiction treatment out of fear that their babies would be taken away from them. However, physicians like Dr. Shah and others wanted the women in their care.
“A big part of our outreach here is to let patients know we want to help you transition and create a healthy environment for them and their baby,” he said.
Dr. Shah said a key part of Rise Up is medication-assisted therapy (MAT), in which an opioid analog is given to a pregnant woman to help address withdrawal symptoms without creating a high. The therapy has proven to be safer than if a woman tries to quit cold turkey or without medical supervision.
“If a mother tries to detox at home, the fetus is going through the same thing and it can be life-threatening for the mom and baby,” Dr. Shah said. “It’s much safer if we transition the mom using an opioid analog through the pregnancy. After delivery, we talk about coming off of everything completely.”
In addition to MAT, Rise Up provides counseling services and has social workers on hand to provide other support, creating what Dr. Shah called a “one-stop shop” for pregnant women who are trying to do the right thing for their babies.
“What we do here is not punitive,” he said. “We work with Child Protective Services and other agencies so that if patients come to their appointments, take their medications and test negative for other drugs, their babies won’t be taken away.”
Today, Raedynn is a happy and healthy 14-month-old who is already showing off her dance moves. Hernandez, who has been a stay-at-home mom, recently found a daycare for Raedynn and is applying for jobs while continuing to work with a sponsor in a 12-step program. At Welch’s invitation, Hernandez also serves on an Our Lady of the Angels advisory committee. The two are so close that Welch even attended Raedynn’s christening.
“It just made me think about how good God is and how much work Rachel has done to make positive changes for her and Raedynn,” Welch said. “For her to make a commitment to God to raise her baby in the church is pretty incredible. I am so encouraged by what we are doing by identifying these patients early on and getting them the right services as soon as possible. We’ve had a fair amount of success with the patients and have decreased the babies’ hospital stays as well, so I think we are having a positive impact.”
Hernandez said she wants to spread the word about Rise Up because many women may be unaware of the program and feel hopeless.
“If you are pregnant and have an addiction, know that there is a solution,” she said. “For a long time, I didn’t know there was a solution, and that’s one reason I kept spiraling. Women need to know there’s a place to go and a family that will welcome you with open arms. Never lose hope.”