Magazine article Insight on the News

The High Price of Drugs: Human Suffering and Death

Magazine article Insight on the News

The High Price of Drugs: Human Suffering and Death

Article excerpt

The impact of drug abuse on children, families and communities isn't revealed in the grim statistics. Stories of real people and broken lives underscore the devastation flowing like a tidal wave across the nation.

With a tinkling lullaby quietly playing from the mobile overhead, a plump infant with caramel-colored skin blinks her dark, sleepy eyes and gurgles in the soft shadows of the nursery The rainbow-striped curtains are drawn, but enough light filters through to illuminate the rows of stuffed animals, Tonka trucks and two wooden cribs.

Across the hall in the bathroom five glittery fuchsia medicine kits sit next to a bottle of baby shampoo. Each kit is labeled with the name of one of the infants who lives in this Washington townhouse. The contents of the cases reveal a disheartening secret: medications for each child, either to fight the AIDS virus or to treat the debilitating effects of prenatal exposure to alcohol and drug abuse.

Thousands of innocent infants and toddlers across the country awake each day unaware that they bear the devastating legacy of this country's drug epidemic. In 1995, 3,758 children were exposed to the HIV virus as a result of their mothers' intravenous drug use or sexual relations with an intravenous drug user, according to the National AIDS Clearinghouse at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC. And tens of thousands more suffer from other prenatal exposure to drugs. Tragically, some of these babies are abandoned at birth, severely neglected and physically abused by their unpredictable parents. They end up spending their sometimes-brief lives in steel hospital cribs.

But for a handful of these children, the world is filled with an atmosphere of tenderness. They spend their first and sometimes only years at Grandma's House, one of the nation's only homes for AIDS-exposed or -infected babies. Located among a row of Victorian townhouses in a dilapidated area of northwest Washington, the children receive meticulous 24-hour care from trained counselors and volunteers.

Named for the traditional stabilizing family matriarch -- the grandmother -- this organization, which is funded partially by the district government and private companies, owns six houses that have been restored and decorated to communicate warmth and continuity. About five children live in each; since the organization's founding in 1987, approximately 120 children have been cared for there -- 95 percent of them suffering from HIV exposure or the effects of substance abuse.

The children either remain at Grandma's House for their entire lives, are reunited with their birth parents or are adopted by dedicated families. But most stay well beyond one year. "With a child that is neglected and abused and on top of that is ill and removed from their families, it takes time for that child to heal," says Nancy Levy, director of client services. "The services we provide are important, but the real healing comes from the loving home environment."

Before one 9-month-old boy who suffered from prenatal substance abuse and was HIV positive came to Grandma's House, he was living in a crack house. "He had been severely neglected and was unkempt, thin and malnourished, irritable with dull eyes," says Levy. Now the boy is 8 years old and attends school nearby He receives excellent medical care and is happy and active with a great sense of humor. "We are aware of the continued uncertainty of his future, but try to make each day full of joy and laughter," Levy says with purpose.

Since its founding, six children have died from the AIDS virus at Grandma's House. "I don't think you ever get used to it," Levy laments. Death is a brutal reality of the dark world of drugs. Nearly half a million Americans die every year from substance abuse, now the single largest preventable cause of death in the United States. The fastest-growing killer related to illicit-drug abuse is AIDS, and more than 33 percent of new AIDS cases occur among injecting drug users or people who have sexual contact with them. …

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