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Pregnant and Hooked: How One Program Helps Heroin Addicts

Shea, a recovering heroin addict, talks about her decision to get clean after finding out she was pregnant.

News that rates of heroin use doubled among women over the past decade doesn’t surprise Shea, who’s 26 and pregnant. She’s also a newly clean addict.

It also doesn’t surprise the staff at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Perinatal Addiction Treatment program in New Hampshire, where Shea got help to reduce the odds of giving birth to an addicted baby.

“I came to treatment because I wanted to get well and I wanted to take care of my son and I wanted to get the chance to be a mother,” Shea, who asked that her last name not be used, told NBC News.

Shea got off heroin with the help of the program — set up to help women get clean before they give birth, so their babies won’t be born addicted.

"I didn't have pain, I didn't feel worn out. I felt good."

It’s an example of one of the programs that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says are key to stopping a troubling trend — a 63 percent increase in heroin use across the country between 2002 and 2013 and a quadrupling of heroin overdose deaths. The rates of heroin use among women doubled over that time.

Shea falls squarely into one of the trends that the CDC found: people who get addicted to heroin after they’ve been prescribed an opioid painkiller for a legitimate medical reason.

“I went in for surgery. I actually had a benign tumor on my neck, and it was very painful. I was prescribed, for the first time, Oxycontin,” she said. That was in 2012.

Oxycontin is one of several pills that acts on the brain just as heroin does. It’s an opiate, which alters the way the brain perceives pain. It’s also extremely addictive.

“I was taking three a day. So I was taking it in the morning and then I would take one in the afternoon and then later at night, sometimes two," Shea said. "I was getting it from other people.”

Shea let her prescription run out. But in 2013, she bought her first bag of heroin, which is cheaper and more widely available than prescription pills.

“I was scared. I was really scared,” Shea said. “A friend of mine told me, she's like, ‘This is the same thing, Shea. You know, it's not a big difference. Just meet this guy, meet whoever. He'll meet you at a Subway down the road and you'll just give him the cash and he'll give you the stuff.'"

Shea snorted the heroin at first: “It did make me feel better. I didn't have pain, I didn't feel worn out. I felt good. And the next day, I did the same thing.”

Soon, all of her spare time and money went to getting heroin. She lost two jobs, one in the home care business and one as a waitress.

“(I) lost my home. I lost my car. I lost a lot of people in my life that were very special to me. I couldn't be around for family events because I was driving two, three hours away,” she said. Shea and her boyfriend, also a recovered heroin user, lived in a car for a while.

Something similar happened to AnnMarie, 23, who also doesn’t want to give her last name.

“I had been looking for Percocet, and I couldn't find any anywhere,” she said. An acquaintance introduced her to heroin. “So I bought a bundle, which is 10, and I just — I snorted it. And I didn't really feel anything. So I just kept doing them. And I did about six of them, and then finally I was really messed up.”

Addiction can come quickly. AnnMarie knew she needed treatment — but it wasn’t easy.

“I've tried getting help — like the clinic, the methadone clinic and a couple other places. But some of the rehabs that are around here had long waiting lists. And the clinic had a waiting list,” she said.

But getting pregnant got her to the front of the line. “As soon as I found out that I was pregnant, they immediately got me help and — kind of sad to say it — but I guess if you're a woman, you can really only get help if you're pregnant immediately,” AnnMarie added.

"I think if this were an epidemic of any other sorts, people would be up in arms. And there would be immediate action."

Cathy Milliken, director of the addiction treatment program at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, says pregnant women have to be a priority.

“It's an epidemic. I mean it's an epidemic. And I think if this were an epidemic of any other sorts, people would be up in arms. And there would be immediate action,” Milliken told NBC News.

“Every time a mom's out there using, there's a risk of overdose and death,” she added. “And of course that would apply for her unborn child as well.”

AnnMarie’s daughter, Natalee, was born with no symptoms of withdrawal.

“She's almost 13 pounds. She's doing everything she should be,” AnnMarie said. “When she does tummy time, she's holding her head up and moving her head left to right and she's very alert and likes to interact with people. I honestly think if I had never got pregnant with Natalee, I would still be using and I don't know where I would be right now."

AnnMarie spent her teen years in foster care. Traumatic childhoods are a risk factor, says Dr. Sarah Akerman, medical director with Dartmouth-Hitchcock's treatment program.

She added that there's been an increase in the last few years of young women using heroin in the region.

“This population has a higher rate of trauma and a high rate of co-occurring psychiatric disorders,” Akerman said. “Common types of trauma being childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, currently and in the past. The majority of pregnancies in our population are unplanned.”

Treatment, including the use of the anti-opiate drug Suboxone, helps wean addicts off heroin. Counseling helps counteract the brain changes that go along with addiction, Milliken says.

In the cases of AnnMarie and Shea, it worked.

“I'm due August the 12th, and his name is Blake,” Shea said. “And he's very healthy. And we're just very excited. Over-the-top excited.”