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New clinic at St. Mary's Hospital offers specialized care for pregnant women addicted to heroin

An induction room at SSM Health's new WISH Center.
Provided | Sarah Savat, SSM Health

SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond Heights has a new facility dedicated to caring for pregnant women addicted to heroin and other opioids.

The Women and Infants Substance Help, or WISH Center started two years ago as a half-day weekly clinic. But after referrals and word of mouth built up a three-week waiting list, SSM Health decided to expand.

The facility opened three weeks ago with the staff, equipment and space to provide prenatal care, addiction treatment and relapse prevention services for up to two years after birth. It's official ribbon-cutting ceremony takes place Thursday.

“We can give mom buprenorphine, the medication that’s given to help lessen the effects of the opioids. We can give her that throughout the pregnancy. But we really had to go one step beyond and make sure that she continued in sobriety,” said Donna Bernard, director of maternal services at SSM Health.

The goal is to get moms-to-be on the addiction medication buprenorphine quickly so their babies go through less withdrawal once they’re born.

“Some end up in just normal newborn nursery, which is the best outcome possible. If mom has stayed clean and done well and followed the program and she’s been very compliant taking the buprenorphine, then some of these babies end up with no issues at all,” Bernard said.

Quitting cold turkey during pregnancy can be dangerous, but according to studies funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, babies whose mothers took buprenorphine required less morphine to be weaned off opioid dependence than mothers who took methadone. Both drug addiction treatments are better for babies than continuing to take heroin or opioid painkillers.

Before the new WISH Center opened three weeks ago, St. Mary’s prenatal addiction specialists were able to see 12 to 14 patients a week. Now the center is seeing more than 50 patients a week.

Once construction of the second half of the facility is complete in the spring, the WISH Center will be able to see more than a hundred patients a week.

“You hope that you don’t need to see that many in a week. But at the same time the need is out there. The patients are there. So everyone that comes in is someone that is seeking help and that is success in itself right there,” Bernard said.

SSM Health is also opening a similar clinic in Carbondale, Ill., in December.


St. Mary’s has financial counselors on hand at the clinic to help pregnant women without insurance sign up for Medicaid. Bernard said Missouri’s Medicaid covers treatment for pregnant women and babies, but addiction treatment and counseling after birth is more complicated.

Jacqueline Seabaugh, RN, clinical coordinator, and Sylvia Poe-Velasco, NP, work at the WISH Center at St. Mary's Hospital.
Credit Sarah Savat | SSM Health
Jacqueline Seabaugh, RN, clinical coordinator, and Sylvia Poe-Velasco, NP, work at the WISH Center at St. Mary's Hospital.

“We can get her covered during pregnancy, but unfortunately then coverage ends after the postpartum period. So she might not have the availability to get the other services throughout,” Bernard said. “What we’re trying to do is create classes and programs and things that wouldn’t necessarily have a cost associated with it.”

Bernard said SSM Health has reached out to state legislators for changes to Medicaid and has spoken to some of the managed Medicaid companies about funding addiction treatment.

“Many of them are very supportive because they also know that could mean a healthier baby, healthier mom, better outcome. That’s less cost for Medicaid and society in general (than if) you had a sicker baby,” Bernard said.

Nationwide, a baby is born dependent on opioids every 25 minutes. The number of babies who have to be treated for fever, diarrhea and shakes due to withdrawal has increased five-fold since 2000.

Bernard said her hope is that the new WISH Center gives moms struggling with an opioid addiction “somewhere that they can come to and know that they’re not being judged for their issues and feel free to come in and not be persecuted for some of the bad choices that they’ve made.”

Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille