News: Cruel Choice

Motherhood, methadone and miscarriage

Jymi Bolden

Tiffany Wilson is hiding from police, fearing a stint in jail will cause her to lose her unborn baby.

This article might get Tiffany Wilson arrested, and she knows it.

Wilson, 34, is on the run, ducking an arrest warrant for a probation violation. She says she's hiding until she can get help in saving her unborn baby.

Wilson is a methadone patient and is in the 16th week of her pregnancy. She fears going to jail will mean forcible detoxification, an ordeal she fears from past experience — and because it could kill her baby.

"You're not supposed to go off methadone when you're pregnant," she says. "There's a 20 percent chance of death in the womb."

Wilson says the Hamilton County Justice Center doesn't allow prisoners to use methadone. That's not exactly correct, but the reality isn't much better.

Wilson allegedly violated probation for a felony theft conviction.

She says she fears Common Pleas Judge Fred Cartolano will imprison her rather than give her a second chance at probation.

"I want to turn myself in and get it over with," she says. "But I don't want to lose the baby."

Weaning, with cold turkey
The risk of miscarriage during methadone withdrawal is significant, according to Elaine Weigel, nurse coordinator at the Pregnancy and Recovery Center at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where Wilson says she's a patient.

"There is a risk of miscarriage anytime anyone goes off of methadone in the first trimester," Weigel says. "Detoxification in the third trimester can cause a child to be stillborn. Only in the second trimester will a doctor approve a slow detoxification, and even it's not advisable."

In February and March, Wilson says she underwent methadone withdrawal following her arrest. She says she became addicted to prescription painkillers she'd used to treat sports injuries.

Awaiting trial for stealing stereo and other equipment while housesitting, Wilson says she was denied methadone in the Justice Center.

"I was coming off 150 milligrams of methadone a day," she says. "It was horrible. They look at it as a punishment. The withdrawal is so stressful on your heart, your breathing, the cramping in the stomach. The stress on the fetus can cause a birth defect."

The Justice Center doesn't prohibit methadone, according to Steve Barnett, spokesman for Sheriff Simon Leis Jr. But it's not exactly easy to get.

"We don't have a policy against methadone, but it's not up to the sheriff's office exactly," Barnett says. "That's a medical decision, not a sheriff's department policy."

Medical decisions are up to personnel with Wexford Corp., a St. Louis company hired by the county to provide health care in the jail, Barnett says.

Only one prisoner at the jail now receives methadone, he says.

On hearing Wilson's account of the withdrawal she says she was forced to undergo in jail, Barnett allows that methadone use isn't encouraged.

"We've had some people come in here who expect to keep up on their methadone daily, and we probably wean them off of it," he says.

Several prisoners are being treated with alternatives to methadone, according to Barnett.

Told Wilson's circumstances, Barnett said she should surrender and tell jail personnel her medical needs.

"There's no guarantee that she's going to get methadone," he says. "It would be a medical decision."

But Wilson says she's experienced the quality of medical care in the jail.

"They hated me in medical, because I do know my rights and I do know certain things and I do ask questions," she says. "They don't like that. The doctors and nurses there are so mean. I was in there 25 days. You could see my stomach cramping from the outside. They'd say, 'It's your own fault. You shouldn't be using drugs.' There were so many people who miscarried there."

'A really dark place'
Wilson is able to cite National Institutes of Health recommendations on methadone dosage and treatment protocols. Her language is peppered with the jargon of drug-abuse treatment, as in her explanation for violating the terms of probation.

Ordered to perform 500 hours of community service, Wilson says she skipped an appointment with her probation officer.

"This was the first time I was in trouble," she says. "I never had a felony or anything. I was so overwhelmed. It just kind of spiraled. A week went by and I knew I was in trouble. I was so depressed. I was in a really dark place."

Wilson is articulate in discussing what she sees as shortfalls in the county's office of public defenders and in health care at the jail. On the latter point, she seems to have some professional experience, saying she's a former surgical assistant for Planned Parenthood.

"Maybe it's an age thing," she says. "Now that I'm pregnant, I feel I can't have an abortion. I feel like I want to do this. Abortion's not an option."

Adding to the irony is the fact that Wilson might accept help from an agency whose politics she says she rejects — a pro-life pregnancy clinic that says it wants to try to help Wilson keep her baby.

Other efforts to get help have been unsuccessful, Wilson says. Some lawyers she contacted urged her to consider abortion. Others recommended litigation — after she loses the baby.

"I've had lawyers tell me, 'Tiffany, the only thing I can do for you is wait until you have a miscarriage, then file suit,' " she says. "What good is that?"

Wilson says police officers have been to a relative's house, looking for her. She says she knows telling her story to a newspaper could hasten her arrest but hopes it might help other women in the future.

"I think it's an important issue," she says. "I think it's cruel and unusual punishment. I'm already in trouble. Why do I have to miscarry, too?" ©

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