Baby Steps clinic provides hope, care for children exposed to drugs before birth


JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Helping babies exposed to drugs before birth is the mission behind a specialized health clinic at East Tennessee State University’s medical center, as doctors look for innovative ways to combat the direct results of the opioid epidemic.

It is a problem that only continues to grow in Appalachia. The path forward for impacted families can start at ETSU Health’s Baby Steps clinic.

“We know they want the best thing for their children and we are here to help them achieve that,” said Medical Director for Baby Steps Dr. Dianna Puhr.

When officials with ETSU Pediatrics opened the clinic around two years ago, they went in knowing that there was a true need for this in the Tri-Cities community.

“We know that early intervention works really well and we know that children are resilient. Families are resilient. We can do a lot to help them meet their potential if we get them plugged into services early,” said Puhr.

Helping the children and parents caught in the grasp of the opioid epidemic is no small feat.

“We have a large number of drug exposed infants in Tennessee but especially in East Tennessee and our region. We know that in the last couple of decades those numbers have increased significantly,” said Puhr.

Research shows babies exposed to opioids during pregnancy can have major struggles as they grow up.

“We know that there can be issues with growth, development, learning, behavior for children that were exposed to drugs before birth. We also know there are a lot of things we can do through different therapy services and early intervention in order to help them achieve their best possible outcome,” said Puhr.

Care Coordinator Morgan Tipton says it all starts with meeting the children ages 3 months to 5 years where they are.

“We spend time with them, just checking those different milestones to make sure they are meeting them and see where they are,” said Tipton.

The effort is about helping the parents, too – connecting them to recovery resources and providing a safe environment to ask questions and receive the care their child needs.

“It’s a place where people feel comfortable, where they feel like they can share things, just a really good support system. It goes further than ‘here’s a handful of resources, see you next time,'” said Tipton.

Dr. Puhr said helping the parents or guardians is just as crucial.

“In order for the child to be successful, the family needs to be successful. So, we want to really wrap around the families just to ensure the best outcome for all for them,” said Puhr.

The team of clinicians on staff includes physical therapists, occupational therapists, audiologists, dieticians, speech pathologists and more. Puhr said this access makes the clinic a one-of-a-kind, one-stop shop for care.

“A lot of them volunteer their time with our clinic because we all feel so strongly about the mission, feel so strongly about the need in our community and feel so strongly about helping these families succeed,” said Puhr.

The Baby Steps clinic is currently serving around 70 families. They hope to secure more funding to be able to expand and grow their impact.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recognized the Baby Steps clinic as a “Promising Practice” for enhancing primary care services for children and families affected by prenatal opioid exposure. 

Dr. Puhr said they are one of just 11 clinics across the country to receive this honor.

All care provided by Baby Steps is covered by insurance and TennCare.

For more information about enrolling, contact ETSU Pediatrics by phone at 423-439-7320.

The clinic works directly with community partner “Families Free” to help families through the process of recovery.

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