Human Interest

Tennessee program provides hope and healing to mothers battling addiction

maternal mortality, abortion, pregnant, pregnancy centers, tennessee

A new program at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) in Tennessee will help pregnant and postpartum mothers who are struggling with addiction. Called Firefly, the goal is to give women inspiration and hope by treating them with compassion and dignity, even with their drug use.

The opioid epidemic has affected much of the country, but Tennessee is one of the hardest-hit states. Not only has it led to deaths from overdose, but it has also increased maternal mortality rates. So VUMC decided to act.

“There is a critical need to address access to care and provide comprehensive public health solutions for pregnant women and infants affected by the opioid crisis,” Stephen Patrick, a neonatologist and the executive director of Firefly, told Newswise. “The stakes are high. For years we have been in the middle of an opioid overdose epidemic, but there are still far too many barriers to get treatment. Women are dying or losing their children to foster care as a result.”

Firefly is one of nine programs funded by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation to test the best models of care for drug-addicted mothers. Firefly is both uniting and expanding existing VUMC programs — Vanderbilt Maternal Addiction Recovery Program (VMARP) and Team Hope — and was created collaboratively with the departments of obstetrics, pediatrics and psychiatry. Firefly will have peer recovery specialists, social workers, an outpatient lactation consultant, obstetric, pediatric and psychiatric professionals, and a clinical program manager. And they’ll all be available in one place, specifically because care for women struggling with addiction can often be so fragmented.

READ: Ohio maternity home created specifically for moms recovering from addiction

“Often care for pregnant women with opioid use disorder is fragmented by silos within health care systems. With the new Firefly model, we have a unique opportunity to create transformative partnerships across specialties,” said Dr. Jessica Young, founder of VMARP and medical director for Firefly, told Newswise. “As an OB-GYN and addiction medicine specialist, I see daily how difficult it is for our patients to navigate complicated health systems. It can be a struggle to obtain basic needs like food, shelter and housing, making recovery even more challenging. The new model will support women and their families in their recovery journey, and I believe this kind of support can be transformational.”

Reagan Burgenheim, a peer recovery specialist at Firefly, agrees. “Having this all under one roof essentially is what I think is going to make this program a success,” she told WTVF. “One addict helping another definitely is unparalleled.”

Young said that people like Burgenheim are what will set Firefly apart. “It’s a privilege to work with recovery coaches,” she said. “They bring their expertise, their heart, their passion for recovery support and it’s critical to help people get a sense of community and to feel less alone.”

Addiction is a major problem in Tennessee, particularly among women, where 62 died in 2019 while pregnant or within one year of pregnancy. The Tennessee Department of Health reported that many of these deaths were preventable, but there are no organizations there to help. “We have a real lack of programs that target pregnant people with opioid use disorder and postpartum people with opioid use disorder,” Dr. Young said. “We’re hoping by creating safe spaces like this we can center that as a chronic medical condition that is rather than a moral failing.”

Kim Lovell, Firefly’s director of operations, said that peer recovery specialists have often said they wished a program like this had been available for them. “This kind of coordinated support simply wasn’t there,” Lovell explained. One of the women, Angela Easterling, said she had lost custody of her children due to her addiction battle, and began recovery while she was pregnant with her fourth child.

“I was a young mother of three children under the age of 4,” she said. “They had been removed from my custody during this time. The program I enrolled in and the recovery community became my family and main support system. I want to assist women in Firefly achieve their goals and access all the wonderful resources available to them. One of the best things is – it’s all in one place, which is priceless for women struggling to make ends meet, attend appointments and care for their children.”

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