December 15, 2022
Tori enjoys some quality time with her child as part of the EMBRACE program. Photo supplied.
Story by Tracy Kennedy
RED DEER — Two mothers are grateful for the support of a program at Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre (RDRHC) that’s helped them recover from substance use and created an environment for them to become more confident moms.
Tori was one of those women who benefited from the EMBRACE program. Although today she’s turned her life around, she recalls darker days when, at 15, she’d regularly sit on the sidewalk downtown, begging for money to get high.
“No matter where I moved or what I did, I would still do the same things. I would hurt the people that cared about me,” she says.
So, when she got pregnant while still using, Tori says she felt terrified she’d never beat her addiction, no matter how many times she’d tried.
“It ended up being the EMBRACE program that taught me I could get the support I wanted and needed,” adds Tori, who’s using only her first name here for privacy.
Babies exposed to substances in the womb may be at risk for infant withdrawal — known as Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome — so pregnant women with opioid or other substance-use concerns need care for both their pregnancy and their addiction.
A multidisciplinary team at RDRHC came together to explore a model of care to meet the needs of these mothers and babies and created the program, launched in 2019.
“We chose the name EMBRACE as we felt it embodied the actions and behaviours we wanted to support to build relationships with pregnant women with opioid substance use,” says Sandi Sebastian, director of Women’s and Children’s Health Services at RDRHC.
EMBRACE — which stands for Empower Mothers and Families, Mentorship, Building Healthy Relationships, Respect, Actively Listen and Learn, Collaboration and Engagement — partners with mothers and families to provide wrap-around services to support them during pregnancy, birth and recovery. Mothers are supported by a team of nurses, physicians, lactation consultants and social workers to prepare them for delivery and the baby’s potential for withdrawal after birth. Addiction counselling is offered through pregnancy and postpartum to assist with the moms’ treatment needs.
The team supports mothers in providing soothing techniques such as skin-to-skin, swaddling, cuddling and breastfeeding while in a quiet environment. These strategies help lessen the baby’s discomfort from withdrawal, with the goal of keeping mom and baby together — and avoiding admission to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
“This team has done a tremendous amount of work since the program began in 2019. They have continued to collaborate with mothers and families and healthcare providers to improve our processes to support families to stay together,” says Sebastian.
Kelly, another Red Deer mom, says she initially put up her guard when in hospital because she was scared.
“Just to know you’re having this baby, and they’re going to have withdrawals — it was nerve-wracking,” she says.
“And you’re scared they’re going to find some reason to take him away from me. And I was scared of being judged. But as time went on, I just learned that they were there to help me.”
Ivy Parsons, the counselling supervisor of the Enhanced Services for Women program, which helps to support EMBRACE, says clients encounter a non-judgmental environment. She says moms are given the opportunity to connect to hospital and community supports and ultimately leave the program with hope and empowerment.
“Through that process of having a safety net, no matter where a mom might fall, we're there to catch her. And we're there to make sure that she knows she is safe, and we will support her with the tools and resources she needs to be successful,” says Parsons.
For her part, upon learning she was pregnant, Kelly desperately wanted to end the cycle of addiction. She got back on Suboxone to taper off drug use, and has developed a close, trusting relationship with her addiction counsellor.
She says that things are positive now, and adds that never in a million years could she have imagined herself where she is today — staying substance-free for as long as she has — and living with her sister and four kids as a happy family.
“I’m proud of myself. It’s been a long, long road. And it's finally good to just be at peace with everything. But it's not easy. It's a journey, you know, and I'm on that journey,” says Kelly.
For Tori, her journey has been helped along by the encouragement of the teams with EMBRACE, Enhanced Services for Women, and the community harm0reduction agency Turning Point.
“They were some of the first people to believe that I could get clean,” she says. “It was just like I got this huge support network that I never had before.”
Today, she’s grateful to wake up every day with her kids. She’s in recovery. As well, she’s excelling in college and studying to become an addictions and community service worker.
As someone who knows the fear of expectant mothers who’ve used substances, shares a word of advice for those who may be reluctant to reach out for help.
“Don't be scared of people judging you, or people wanting to see you fail. When I worked with the EMBRACE program, I never felt more loved or cared for. It was honestly a huge stepping-stone to where I am today.”