This story, originally published by the Bristol Herald Courier, appeared Sept. 7, 2017. Copyright 2017 Bristol Herald Courier.
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Watching Levi Miller run around his house, playing with toys and his siblings, you’d never know he was born withdrawing from drugs.
For the first six months of his life, Levi was lethargic, suffered through tremors and experienced muscle tightness. He was born with neonatal abstinence syndrome because his mother used methamphetamine, marijuana and several other drugs while she was pregnant. She tested positive for “a little bit of everything” when she gave birth, according to Levi’s adoptive mother, Sabrina Miller. The infant tested positive for meth and marijuana.
Sabrina and her husband, Chris, who are Johnson City residents, began the process of adopting the 2-year-old while his mother was pregnant. The Millers were there when Levi was born.
“Children are so resilient,” Sabrina Miller said. “If you just give them the environment where you’re supporting them and giving [them] the opportunity to succeed, then they do overcome.”
Levi was in physical therapy for a year and is still in behavioral, occupational and speech therapy. At the hospital in Nevada where he was born, he was kept in a neonatal intensive care unit for nearly 10 days because he had trouble eating.
“The boy is an overcomer,” Chris Miller said.
The first thing you notice about the toddler is his heartwarming smile and high-pitched squeals of excitement. He is tall for his age and looks more like a 4-year-old. He has broad shoulders and a strong build like his mother, according to Chris Miller. He can’t sit still for long because he loves to work the room, or “ham it up,” his father said.
Levi is a happy, energetic child, but he’s still dealing with the effects of the drugs his mother used. There have been developmental delays. In his first year, he dealt with delays in physical milestones, while so far his second year has brought delays in speech and fine motor skills development.
“None of that is having any permanency,” Sabrina Miller said. “By simply having him in an environment where he’s able to grow and we’re able to support him, he’s been able to overcome all that. … We don’t know in terms of what sort of learning disabilities he may or may not have. Our hope is that he doesn’t, and we’ll continue to support him to help him continue to thrive in the best way possible.”
Preparing for Levi’s arrival was a lot for the couple to handle in a short amount of time. Finding information about NAS brought the greatest struggle.
“A lot of it was just education and reaching out to other adoptive families that did have some experience with it [NAS],” his mother said. “We did find a lot of difficulty in finding good solid information.”
Sabrina Miller, who is a physician, said she wasn’t taught about NAS in medical school because it’s a newer issue. But both mom and dad said they wouldn’t change a thing about their “incredible journey” and would tell anyone who is thinking about adopting to be more open to any baby regardless of any health issues like NAS.
“I would tell them to do it because it’s been the most joyful experience of our entire life,” she said. “I think the joy in seeing that child grow and overcome totally outweighs any fear.”
They still send pictures of Levi to his birth mother by way of an adoption agency every so often. They know that Levi has at least four, possibly five, biological siblings.
The Millers said they don’t blame Levi’s mother for her choices and would like to see the stigma that plagues pregnant women who are addicted to drugs broken.
“She was a sweet lady,” Chris Miller said. “I think when people picture these kinds of things, they think of these very kind of drug-addicted, gutter types [of people]. … I just don’t believe in any stage that those mothers actively decide to use anything that they use because they want to harm their child. They’re just not making that conscious decision. It’s an addiction. … They just need help. They have socioeconomic challenges.”
He added that there’s no point in being bitter or angry toward Levi’s mom because what’s important is that she made the right decision.
“She chose life,” he said. “She didn’t have to choose that. … She’s gone through things that I’m sure I’ll never understand. He’s one of the biggest blessings to our life that I could possibly imagine.”
The Miller family’s experiences with NAS go even further because of Chris Miller’s job as an associate administrator with Mountain States Health Alliance. He works on a daily basis with Niswonger Children’s Hospital in Johnson City, and the family regularly donates money to the hospital during fundraisers.
Niswonger’s new Special Care Unit for babies with NAS, which opened in May, holds a special place for them because of Levi. Chris Miller answered phones during a radiothon held to raise money to build the unit, around the time the Millers adopted Levi.
The boy was welcomed into the family with nothing but love and overwhelming joy by his new siblings, Shelby, Kayleigh and Braden, the couple’s biological children. Their father said they tried to sneak in at 2 a.m. when they brought Levi home from the hospital, but their kids couldn’t contain their excitement.
“They got up, and it was hoopla,” Chris Miller said. “We got pictures of them just loving on him. I don’t think it changed from that moment.”
Since Levi was adopted, the Millers have welcomed another baby into their family — 1-year-old Addison. They began the process of adopting her just a couple of days after she was born. Addison wasn’t born with NAS.
“For us, it’s a faith thing,” Chris Miller said. “We wanted to adopt. We just felt like we were really called to do that.”
Lurah Spell, Bristol Herald Courier