On an early morning in April, three women gathered at Laurel Creek Manor in Sumner.
Having only just met, they barely knew each other.
But they all shared the same issue: they're mothers struggling with addiction during their pregnancies.
At one point or another, they’d all received help through the Substance Treatment and Recovery Training (START) program at East Pierce Family Medicine, a MultiCare clinic located across the street from Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup.
The program, run by MultiCare Addiction Medicine Fellowship Director Abi Plawman, helps pregnant women and mothers in recovery. Currently, it’s only an outpatient clinic.
But come 2019, Good Samaritan Hospital will open an 18-bed inpatient obstetric addiction unit. It’ll be the only one of its kind in Pierce County.
And for women like 27-year-old Kassondra Pacas, 28-year-old Diana Gomez and 36-year-old Michelle Baker, it’ll make all the difference.
How addiction starts
Gomez grew up like “a regular kid in Tacoma,” she said. She was close to her family, had lots of friends and was a Girl Scout.
In high school, she met a boy, Zach. They moved in together when they got older. They saved up to buy a boat, which they would take out in the summer.
One day, while out on the boat with some friends, Zach dived into the water to swim back to shore to retrieve something from his car.
He never resurfaced.
“He was an epileptic,” Gomez said. “He had a seizure out there in the water, and he drowned, and it was really hard. Zach, I felt, was like a big part of me. He was a part of my heart.”
After that, everything changed for Gomez.
“I couldn’t stop blaming myself. I went back home and everywhere I looked was him,” she said. “So I went out and started drinking a lot and I just tried to avoid reality as much as I could. Pain pills were at a party I was at and I took one and I decided that I liked it.”
It wasn’t long before Gomez was working mostly to pay for her pills. She starting selling drugs to friends with another dealer, and the police started to pay attention.
“One morning the SWAT team came in and broke down our door and it was really scary, you know, having big old guns — it was not a joke — pointed at you,” Gomez said. “It's just a big traumatic thing.”
The other dealer was arrested, and Gomez was let go. She moved to another city, but continued to use until her partner encouraged them both to get clean. Gomez went to a rehabilitation clinic, where, after a few tests, she was told she was several weeks pregnant.
“When I had my first ultrasound I remember seeing this little jelly bean and I had this epiphany that years down the road this person is just going to be such a good person,” Gomez said. “I decided I was going to keep the baby and I’ve been clean now for a year and a half.”
Gomez, who now lives in Edgewood with her daughter, Parker June, received nothing but support from Pacas and Baker after she shared her story with them. After all, they’d gone through similar experiences.
Baker started smoking marijuana at 12 years old. By 16, she moved to heroin and meth shortly after. When she found out she was pregnant at 29, she went to an inpatient unit in Ballard and got help before going to the START program.
Pacas also started using before her first child, but was able to stop for her next two children. She started using again before her fourth pregnancy. That child, Frankie, is now four months old and healthy.
“I went through almost my whole pregnancy using with a big belly and it took a lot for me to get clean,” Pacas said.
The courage to ask for help
When Pacas found out she was pregnant, she told her nurse that she was using.
“They’re like, ‘Well, I’m sorry, we don’t do that here,’” Pacas remembered. “The only way I found out about this inpatient program was by calling a million places just desperately trying to get help.”
The same happened to Gomez, who was turned away from the staff at her rehab center.
To Plawman, the issue is clear: there aren’t enough clinics that can help pregnant women struggling with addiction. There are more than 200 women delivering per year in the area who are not getting ideal services, she said, and it’s only getting worse in the middle of a growing opioid epidemic.
“Even within the medical community there’s a lot of judgment and bias about women when they come for help while they’re pregnant,” Plawman said, who is a licensed medical doctor. “A lot of people view this as something they should have been able to suddenly stop when they discover that they’re pregnant.”
Gomez, Baker and Pacas said they all faced judgment at some point in their journeys to recovery.
“When you’ve got to reach out and ask for help, that’s hard enough as it is,” Baker said. “Especially, if in the past you’ve reached out and the person wasn’t very nice or helpful, you get discouraged and scared to ask for help.”
“The biggest public misconception about the women that I serve is that they somehow are not caring about their baby and not caring about their pregnancy and they’re focused only on themselves,” Plawman added. “And what I see are women who are desperate to have a healthy pregnancy and love their baby more than anything else and are fighting through stigma and fear and judgment to get the best possible medical care.”
Good Sam's new OB Addiction Unit
Plawman, who has worked for MultiCare for four years, formally approached the company about opening an inpatient OB Addiction Unit two and a half years ago. The project was approved to open in the Dally Tower at Good Samaritan. The building is currently renovating its top two floors, opening up space for an 18-bed inpatient unit elsewhere.
The program will be the first of its kind in Pierce County and the fourth in western Washington. It will take women at anytime during their pregnancy.
“It’s unique, geographically, and it’s also unique in its approach that our unit won’t have any non-pregnant people in treatment, it’s only pregnant women,” Plawman said.
Good Samaritan Foundation is raising money for the OB Addiction Unit at its annual Corks & Crush gala auction May 19.
The unit is expected to open in early 2019.
Corks & Crush
Time: 5:30-11:30 p.m. May 19
Where:Washington State Fair Event Center, 110 9th Ave. SW, Puyallup
Tickets: $250 per person
Attire: Black tie optional
Info: 253-403-3038, firstname.lastname@example.org.