In 2019 Angela Cicchino gave birth to a baby boy via emergency C-section.
What came next was even harder.
Hospital staffers asked if she wanted the painkiller Percocet. That posed a problem for Cicchino, who was in recovery for substance abuse disorder. While growing up in Toms River, she had become addicted to opioids — prescription pills at first, and later heroin.
It was spelled out in her medical chart, yet the Percocet offers kept coming.
“I was in the hospital for five days, and I was asked multiple times a day about the Percocet,” she said. “It got to the point where family members had to go outside (the room) and say, ‘Please do not ask her anymore about the Percocet.’”
Cicchino took Tylenol instead, but she had to ask for it.
“I was so surprised that there weren’t other options given,” she said. “There was resistance from physicians and nurses at the time because I was saying no to the medication, which made the whole thing difficult. I was like, ‘Should I have taken this? You question yourself.’”
Fortunately, she said, “I have a very strong support system, a strong and supportive family, and they were with me the whole time.”
The experience made a deep impression on Cicchino because she already was three years into a career as a peer recovery counselor with the Eatontown-based RWJBarnabas Health Institute for Prevention and Recovery. Now 32 and a manager at the institute, the issue of maternal health remains close to her heart. Between January and April of this year, the institute has served at least 140 pregnant women.
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“I can’t even tell you how many women I have seen come into recovery, have a baby and relapse,” Cicchino said, pointing to the combination of stress, hormonal changes and medications that come into play during and right after pregnancy. “You add all of that onto the plate of someone who struggles with substance abuse disorder, and maybe someone doesn’t have the support they need, and you’re making a recipe for disaster.”
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‘Angela is the model’
Cicchino’s struggle with addiction began while she attended Toms River High School East.
“I partied on the weekends in high school, and that turned into Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday,” she said. “The first time I went through opiate withdrawal, I had no idea what was happening. I just knew I felt sick on a family vacation. I was physically hooked before I was fully aware that I was hooked.”
It escalated quickly.
“It started with prescription medication and in the end it was heroin and crack cocaine,” she said. “I was in and out of jail. In 2011 I got into Recovery Court (formerly known as Drug Court). I was 22 years old. My friends from high school were graduating college and I was in Recovery Court.”
She made it through and is now eight years into her recovery. Starting in 2016, as peer recovery counselor, she’s helped others navigate the terrain.
“Angela is the model of a young voice of somebody in recovery — somebody who has walked that journey, that path, and now represents the face of recovery to young mothers, young women in recovery really, across all of the program,” said Lynn Seaward, an assistant director at the Institute for Prevention and Recovery. “She brings that lived experience and it really helps individuals connect.”
For expectant mothers, the path begins before childbirth.
“My biggest fear about going through labor was there are all these medications, and no one was there to guide me through that,” Cicchino said. “Throughout my pregnancy, I would leave after an appointment thinking, ‘Wow, no one even asked me about my recovery. It wasn’t even discussed.’ How scary is that?”
Overcoming the stigma
Having walked the walk, Cicchino understands how difficult it can be to broach the topic.
“There is a stigma that comes with substance abuse disorder; I am not naïve to that,” she said. “It’s scary to say, ‘I’m in recovery and I have problems with substances. I’m afraid to say this now because I am becoming a mom and the stigma is going to be even more intense.'”
The hope, Cicchino said, is for obstetricians and gynecologists throughout New Jersey “to know our services exist, so if they have a woman who comes in and she’s struggling, they can connect her to peer support.”
And avoid unpleasant surprises. Like when Cicchino found out after the fact that the narcotic fentanyl was part of the epidural injection she received during childbirth (a standard practice).
“Can we do things differently throughout this process, give people resources they can use to feel like, ‘I am doing right for me and my baby?’” she said.
Cicchino is happy to report that, three years after the C-section, motherhood is going well.
“I love being a mom — it’s my favorite role in the whole entire world,” she said. “Now I have a different perspective. I know how important it is to have a strong support system.”
For more information on the RWJ Barnabas Health Institute for Prevention and Recovery, visit www.rwjbh.org/treatment-care/institute-for-prevention-and-recovery or www.facebook.com/RWJBHifpr.
Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the Jersey Shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at [email protected]
Source: Asbury Park