This story, originally published by the Bristol Herald Courier, appeared Sept. 4, 2017. Copyright 2017 Bristol Herald Courier.
MEADOWVIEW, Va. — When Victoria McCune began using drugs around the age of 10, she never imagined the resulting addiction would lead to giving birth to two drug-addicted babies.
The 21-year-old said she began using drugs because she had been sexually abused and as a way of rebelling against being put in foster care, which separated her from her older sister. McCune ended up in more than 20 foster homes before she was adopted at age 12.
Eventually, she abused prescription painkillers and was using heroin, crack cocaine and methamphetamine. Her drugs of choice were Subutex — a narcotic pain reliever — and meth. She used both during the first 10 weeks of her first pregnancy.
“I was already putting my child in danger, so when I found out I was pregnant, I was like, ‘Either I can keep on putting him through something, or I can get help for me and him.’”
She stopped using meth and decided to continue using Subutex to gradually break her addiction. Subutex is used by medical providers to treat pregnant women with an addiction to narcotic pain relievers. It’s frequently prescribed to pregnant addicts because many doctors believe quitting cold turkey could harm their babies more. But it is also addictive.
“I always said when I was little I would be a better mom than my mom was, so that was my main priority — making sure my son was healthy and had everything he needed and wanted,” McCune said.
Her advice to women who are pregnant and abusing drugs is to get treatment.
“Choose what’s more important — your child or getting high — because there are some women that do choose drugs over their kids,” McCune said. “A child is not just a game or nothing. It’s a responsibility.”
Soon after McCune, then 19, found out she was pregnant, she met Linda Gambrel, a public health nurse with the Washington County Health Department who visited McCune at her home as part of her treatment. Gambrel told McCune that she needed to get her Subutex from a doctor so that the amount could be managed. McCune took her advice.
McCune and her fiance, Jacob Arnold, had no idea that their baby, Andrew, would develop an addiction in utero to the Subutex.
“My OB-GYN did not explain there was risk of withdrawals or anything,” she said. “We had to find out ourselves at the hospital. They were doing these tests, and we didn’t know what [the] tests were.”
Andrew was being tested to determine if he had neonatal abstinence syndrome. After three days in the hospital, he was sent to Niswonger Children’s Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit to be treated for NAS. His withdrawals weren’t severe, McCune said, but he stayed for three weeks.
So far, the 2-year-old hasn’t experienced any long-term effects from NAS.
The young mother wishes someone had told her what her baby would experience so she could have mentally prepared herself.
“It was hard on me,” she said. “I was very depressed. The only time I would get out of bed was if I knew I was going to Johnson City to see him [Andrew]. And I blamed myself. I still blame myself for him, but he’s turned out great. He’s above his learning stages and everything. He’s a very smart boy, but when you’re dealing with all that, the first person you’re going to blame is yourself.”
But she still believes taking Subutex is the best route for women when they get pregnant while using drugs.
“I don’t want mothers to think it’s their fault,” said McCune. “They [do] this [take Subutex] for their child and for them. … I hate to see my own child withdrawing, but I’d rather see him go through something like with Subutex than on another drug that could really, really hurt him. I’m glad I got help instead of just [continuing] the stuff that I was doing.”
“I wasn’t working, and he [Jacob] doesn’t make a lot,” said McCune. “We were worried how we would afford two kids, and I guess all that stress made me relapse, but I just did it that one time. But I knew that one time could lead to me doing it every day.”
McCune’s doctor put her back on Subutex for the duration of her pregnancy. Clayton was born on Sept. 1, weighing six pounds, seven ounces.
“The baby is doing really good. He’s not been showing a lot of withdrawal symptoms,” McCune said by phone Monday.
Despite McCune’s relapse, Gambrel believes she’s “made leaps and bounds of progress.”
“Where she was when she was pregnant with Andrew to at this point, it’s amazing how far she’s come,” she said. “The thing about the Subutex … is how much is too much? How do you know if they’re going to go through withdrawals or not? … Two years ago, we didn’t know as much as we do now. I think that she’s better prepared now. I know more about it now.”
Lurah Spell, Bristol Herald Courier