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Puffing moms get help kicking the habit

Tuesday, May 01, 2001

By Deborah Mendenhall, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Darwin Lee Stevenson arrived on Feb. 10, weighing 7 pounds, 8 ounces. He was healthy, active and his lungs worked just fine all by themselves.

Unremarkable, perhaps, except for one thing: until the ninth month of her pregnancy, his mother Belinda Stephenson, had been smoking for two.

When she discovered that each cigarette pumped the equivalent of car exhaust into her womb, Stephenson, a pack-a-day smoker for 20 years, immediately quit.

"I had no idea the baby got carbon monoxide," Stephenson said. "When I found out, I said, 'It's time to stop.' "

Babies born to women who smoked during pregnancy have more lung and other health problems. Maternal smoking has been linked to increased miscarriages, stillbirths, premature deliveries and infant deaths. These children may be slower learners in school and more likely to smoke when they are older.

Stephenson, 35, learned about carbon monoxide as a participant in the Stop TObacco in Pregnancy program, (STOP) sponsored by the UPMC Community Initiative in partnership with Magee-Womens Hospital, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic and UPMC Braddock.

The two-year program, which began in November, has enrolled 21 pregnant women who are trying to quit or cut down. Most of the women are in their 20s, but some participants are teen-agers, the youngest being 14. Darwin Lee is the first baby born to a participating mother.

Women in the program receive individual counseling, information about the risks associated with smoking to their unborn babies, and are invited to participate in small support groups.

Their breath is analyzed by a monitor that measures the parts of carbon monoxide found per milliliter of expired air. A score of 8 and below is considered good. If they register a low number, indicating they haven't smoked, the women receive small gifts for themselves or their babies.

"We work at their pace," said Patricia Gonzalez, STOP project coordinator. "We don't want to force anyone to do anything they don't want to do."

STOP first admitted only women in Braddock and the Hill District, but now any pregnant woman may participate, said program director Patricia Cluss. The program is offered in Braddock, the Hill District and Oakland. Bus vouchers are provided to those who need transportation.

Stephenson heard about STOP at House of Hope, a 90-day shelter for homeless and chemically addicted pregnant women or new mothers, where she is living. The shelter, which is also sponsored by UPMC Braddock, admits up to five women, who may bring two children each. After 90 days the women are helped to find permanent housing, said director Paula Sculimbrene.

With a safe place to stay, after kicking other addictions and being drug free for 10 months, Stephenson took on tobacco.

When Stevenson first blew into the carbon monoxide monitor, her blood measured 10 parts per milliliter. Then it dropped to 6 the second week, and just before she gave birth to Darwin, it had dropped to 1.

"We thought that was fantastic," said Gonzalez. "And the baby was born very healthy."

The women continue STOP for three months after they deliver, because another program goal is to help those who quit remain tobacco free. Second-hand smoke is also harmful to babies and other children at home, constricting a baby's already narrow airways and causing lung problems like bronchitis or pneumonia.

Some 90 percent of quitters relapse in the first three months, said Cluss, who is also the associate director of Western Psych's Behavioral Medicine Program.

Stephenson returned to smoking, but intends to quit completely. She is down to 3 and one half cigarettes a day.

"I keep shortening them, putting them out before I'm done," she said. "I am determined to quit for many reasons. I have asthma, smoking costs too much, it makes my clothes stink, and I don't want Darwin to get second-hand smoke."

Cluss said STOP was formed after public health officials realized there was a need.

"The University of Pittsburgh is a hotbed of smoking research," she said. "We know a lot. But even though we have some of the best smoking research in the country, there were no programs to help women."

UPMC provided the initial funding for STOP, with additional money coming from the March of Dimes. The program was designed to be a prototype and may be made available to more women after the initial data is collected and analyzed, Cluss said.

Women can join the program at any time and don't have to be committed to stopping smoking when they call. Those interested should call 412-551-8694.

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