Emory Report

Feb. 1, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 18

Saving babies goal of Donna Carson's Project Prevent

"This is what we call the 'angel room,'" Donna Carson said as she walked into a lavender-hued corner room of Project Prevent's headquarters on Juniper Street in Midtown. Just below its ceiling, the room is bordered with angels hovering above a crib, bassinet, rocking chair and automatic swing.

Elsewhere in the two-story house is the "fish room," along with one or two others that await proper names to suit their bright, freshly painted motifs. Each of these rooms also await future tenants: tiny residents, often weighing no more than a few pounds, to whom the value of these rooms cannot possibly be measured.

Project Prevent is Emory's best-kept secret. Carson, its founder, has spent 22 years as a social worker and faculty member in the Department of Pediatrics, 15 as the sole social worker in Grady Hospital's neonatal intensive care nursery. In 1983 she founded the "Grady Rockers" program, using volunteers to provide the human touch and stimulation babies in the ward might not otherwise receive. But in 1990 Carson realized the problems these babies face had escalated.

"Drugs had started to affect babies," she said. "Drug-addicted mothers would not get any prenatal care, would use drugs throughout their pregnancies and would walk in and deliver a baby that was one pound. We would do everything medically to save the child's life, spend a half-million dollars on the baby, only to have a mother who wasn't able to provide care for the baby."

Rather than continue to spend millions in tax dollars to hire even more doctors and buy even more ventilators and incubators, Carson saw an opportunity in prevention. She put together a grant proposal for a two-pronged approach: first, Project Prevent (as she called her idea) would use tips from law enforcement, women's shelters, hospitals and other sources to find drug-addicted pregnant women and coax them into treatment before delivering a child; and second, to pick up babies in the nursery who were drug exposed and work from there, pushing the system, trying to help the new mothers kick their old habits.

Today Project Prevent is recognized nationwide as a model program for community intervention. The latest awards Carson and the project have received (there are too many to list them all) are an honor from the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation for contributions to the health and well-being of children, and a Children's Champion Award from UNICEF. Carson is being personally recognized for the latter, making her only the third individual in the award's history to be so recognized.

"I really didn't like drug addicts very much," Carson admitted about her attitude when she launched Project Prevent. "But that was who was creating most of the sick babies we were dealing with at Grady. When we started, 35 percent of babies at Grady tested positive for drugs; after our first year it had gone down to 11 percent, and it's pretty much stayed between 11 and 15."

What that translates into is a savings of more than $80 million in medical costs over those seven years, all from merely a fraction of that sum in federal grant money. "If we can keep one two-pound baby from being born, that has paid for our working with more than 350 families a year," Carson said.

Indeed, the babies are why Carson does this. And now in Project Prevent's new headquarters-it has occupied the house on Juniper for one year-the babies have a place to go. "Boarder babies" are those who are healthy enough to leave the hospital but have more medical needs than most foster homes can provide; these babies often stay for extended periods of time in the neonatal ward at Grady. But Project Prevent has used its extra space to launch "My House," a transitional home for these infants until an adoptive home is found.

Still, even though the babies are what drives Carson, experience has taught her not to become too attached. While working at Grady she became very close to one baby boy who weighed two-and-a-half pounds at birth. Carson and the rest of the staff nursed him to health, only to be devastated by his sudden death at 7 months. Since then she's kept her distance.

Despite all the national attention Project Prevent has received, Carson used to feel the program went relatively unnoticed in its hometown. That all changed last fall, when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a series of articles detailing the program's efforts and successes. Since then, volunteers have literally come out of the woodwork-almost all the work being done to refurbish the house on Juniper has been donated by friends from Carson's church, community organizations and others who simply read the stories and wanted to help.

"We just got inundated with calls," Carson said. "We started getting people together on Saturdays; somebody knew a designer, who knew a plumber, who knew a contractor, who offered his crew every other Monday. It's just been unbelievable." Especially for the babies.

--Michael Terrazas

Editor's note: Anyone interested in volunteering for Project Prevent may call 404-876-1337 for more information.

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