Alive and kicking

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 November, 2007, 12:00am

Kit cradled her one-year-old daughter in her arms, smiling at her while gently feeding her with a bottle of milk. Like other mothers, Kit loves her baby. But the former heroin addict also has a sense of guilt.

Wai-wai (not her full name) was born three months premature in September last year, weighing only 1kg due to the effects of the heroin and methadone her mother was taking at the time. The weakened child was trembling and in a distressed state shortly after birth.

Now 13 months old, Wai-wai is rapidly gaining strength. She weighs 7kg, the size of most children who are only five or six months old.

'I feel so guilty,' said Kit, who preferred not to give her real name. 'I have damaged her life in some way. Now I will do anything I can to compensate.'

For the first two months of her life, Wai-wai struggled to grow in an incubator in the neonatal care unit at the Princess Margaret Hospital. Before being discharged, Wai-wai also had to undergo a course of detoxification to purge her body of the drugs her mother had taken while she was in the womb.

'When I saw her small body in the glass box, I knew I must change my life and be a good mother,' said Kit. 'She gives me strength to fight on.'

Wai-wai was Kit's second child. Her son, now three, was born when she was still injecting heroin three or four times a day.

Kit, 34, is one of about 120 women who have been pregnant or given birth while addicted to drugs and who have since enrolled in a programme launched last year by a group of doctors and social workers who wanted to help addicts and their newborn babies.

The programme that helped Kit to start a new life was established by the Hospital Authority, the Department of Health and the Society for the Aid and Rehabilitation of Drug Abusers. A team of doctors, nurses and social workers provides early detoxification treatment for pregnant drug addicts and their babies, follows up on the women's health and tracks their children's development until they reach the age of six. The programme also helps underage mothers and the mentally ill.

Patrick Ip, the programme's co-ordinator and a senior medical officer at Princess Margaret Hospital, said 70 per cent of the drug abusers who joined the programme managed to kick their heroin habits, compared with a success rate of 17 per cent for attempted rehabilitation before the programme was launched. He said 15 per cent had quit all drugs, including methadone, compared with 7 per cent in the past.

Lee Yam-tsang, superintendent at the Society for the Aid and Rehabilitation of Drug Abusers, said about 90 per cent of the mothers did not start detoxification until after giving birth. 'Having detoxification during pregnancy is very hard for both the mothers and the babies, so most of them still take methadone during their pregnancy,' he said.

The society provides counselling for the women at Hong Kong's 20 methadone clinics. It launched the programme at the Sham Shui Po methadone clinic, where its social workers accompany mothers on their prenatal checks and hold case conferences with doctors.

The society's social workers have so far convinced 47 drug-addicted mothers to join the scheme. Of that number, 12 have had abortions. They also cited seven cases of babies being placed in residential centres for care or in foster homes.

One of the society's social workers, Gloria Yau Chui-wah, said some of the mothers were unable to take care of their babies. She said some had mental illnesses and that there was one single mother with a partner in prison. In some cases, the babies were mistreated, leading to investigations by social workers and medical officers.

Two addict mothers not in the programme were recently jailed for abusing their children. In early August, a young single mother who fed her infant son antiseptic fluid before attempting to throw him off a bridge while under the influence of drugs was sentenced to a year in prison. The court heard the jobless woman had been using drugs such as Ecstasy, ketamine and Ice since she was 14.

Later that month, another drug addict mother was placed on 24 months' probation for child abuse after her two-year-old son tasted a straw containing the drug Ice that she had left at home. The court heard that the toddler had picked up the straw and tried to imitate his mother. He spent a week in hospital before being placed in the care of a social organisation.

The experiences of addicts such as Kit underscore the anguish of a drug addict. Her 16-year battle started when a friend and drug addict in her village in Hunan province told her that heroin could treat diarrhoea.

'One day I had very bad diarrhoea. A friend gave me some powder and taught me how to put it on top of aluminium foil and burn it with a lighter from below. I followed the advice and my diarrhoea was gone.' Kit took heroin a second time and quickly became an addict. Her father later discovered her secret and tried to 'detoxify' her by his own primitive means.

'On the mainland, it's always very shameful for your relatives and friends to know you have a daughter taking drugs,' she said. 'So my father locked me up and forced me to quit. I sneezed, trembled and had severe headaches. There was pain in my every bone and muscle. My father even borrowed a pair of handcuffs from a police station and tied me to my bed. But after he saw my painful face, he softened and released the handcuffs. After five or six days, I could not bear that pain any more; I kicked so fiercely at the door that I damaged the lock. I ran out and never went back.'

Kit later married and moved to Hong Kong. After her husband died she became addicted to intravenous heroin use. She met another man and by the time she was pregnant with her first child, in 2004, Kit was still using heroin.

'I went to a methadone clinic,' Kit said. 'At that time there was no special service for pregnant addicts. They just referred me to prenatal checks and I kept taking drugs.'

Her boyfriend, who by then had ended the relationship, took her son back to Hunan. Kit later married for a second time and became pregnant again. This time she was determined to be a good mother. She attended a Sham Shui Po methadone clinic, where the pilot programme targeting pregnant addicts picked up her case.

'The social workers there are very caring, they talked to me and reinforced that now that I am a mother, I should do something for my baby,' said Kit. 'What they said touched me. They understand me and they know why I am vulnerable sometimes.'

After she gave birth, Kit was admitted to Kwai Chung Hospital for a week of detoxification.

'With Wai-wai next to me, I need to be strong. I have changed my telephone number and moved home. I have cut off my old friends completely.'

In June, a charitable group joined the programme, providing babysitting and counselling services for drug-addicted mothers. The Changing Young Lives Foundation has trained two former female heroin addicts to be what they call 'smart mothers', offering advice to new mothers about how to take care of their babies at home.

The foundation's executive director, Marcia Aw, said the merit of the scheme lay in counselling by peers. 'It is a very meaningful programme to have some former drug addicts help their peers to get through the most difficult time,' Ms Aw said. 'Being a new mother is tough. The two trainers can play an important role in helping them organise their lives, and importantly, talking and sharing experiences.'

One of the foundation's trainers, Fan Lai-wan, said regular contact with the new mothers gave them extra resolve to concentrate on motherhood. 'I teach them some basic skills such as bathing a baby and cookery,' she said. 'I also spent time chatting with them like a friend. My presence is the best way to support them. My experience tells them that if someone like me can quit, then so can they.'

Ms Fan, 39, started taking heroin at the age of 14. For years she made a living through a number of low-paying jobs that managed to sustain her habit, and she eventually contacted a detoxification centre in Sheung Shui. It was only after her third visit that she kicked the habit.

'After the first two attempts I took the drug straight after I walked out of the centre. My appetite for the drug had not died,' she said.

Ms Fan said that at one point she was living as a 'zombie'. 'I did nothing but take heroin at home and watch TV. I did not know when dawn and dusk was. I slept most of the time.

'But one day when I was taking the drug at home, many pictures from my past flashed through my mind, like a roll of film. I saw myself taking drugs at a young age. It was an awakening moment, I cried non-stop until I almost collapsed. I thought about my future - would I have to work as a prostitute in Temple Street when I was old? No, it wasn't what I wanted.'

In 2002 she went to the detoxification centre for a third time and stayed for eight months. 'It was a success,' she said. 'I started working as a peer counsellor at a methadone clinic, sharing my experience with other drug addicts, encouraging them to quit.'

She later took a babysitting course and joined the Smart Mothers scheme. 'I feel great meeting all those babies,' Ms Fan said. 'They are all so lovely.'