Pennsylvania Hospital at center of dispute over baby born with morphine in system

Jade Nelson, 22, with her newborn, Dillen Anthoney Whitest. He remains at Pennsylvania Hospital. Nelson takes prescription morphine for pain.
Jade Nelson, 22, with her newborn, Dillen Anthoney Whitest. He remains at Pennsylvania Hospital. Nelson takes prescription morphine for pain.
Posted: January 12, 2013

Pennsylvania Hospital's decision to treat a newborn boy for morphine withdrawal against his mother's wishes has unleashed a brouhaha, including an emergency court order, a social-media storm, and plans for a protest demonstration Friday morning in front of the hospital on Spruce Street.

All sides agree that the mother, Jade Nelson, 22, takes prescription morphine to relieve chronic pain caused by sickle-cell anemia, and that her son was born Dec. 27 with the drug in his system.

But many other facts - the baby's condition, the parents' behavior, and the doctors' management of the case - are in dispute.

Nelson and her relatives contend Dillen did not show symptoms of withdrawal in the first days after his birth.

Nelson said that when she objected to the morphine treatment, doctors refused to provide results of her son's laboratory drug tests and would not let her take him to another hospital for a second opinion.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that because abrupt opioid withdrawal can be life-threatening, newborns with symptoms such as tremors, fever, inconsolable crying, sleeplessness, or convulsions may need to be given oral morphine and then weaned from it.

However, assessing that need is somewhat subjective, and the academy cautions that "unnecessary treatment will prolong drug exposure and the duration of hospitalization."

Hospital spokeswoman Susan Phillips would not discuss the case, but said in a statement, "We firmly believe that the treating physicians, all neonatal intensive care specialists, made the right decision regarding the care of this infant. The family's vocal and disruptive opposition to appropriate medical care for the baby has been very distressing to caregivers."

The conflict escalated on New Year's Eve, when Nelson said the hospital accused her and Dillen's father, Anthoney Whitest, of trying to remove the baby from the hospital without permission.

"That never happened. It was so crazy. I was terrified. That's when they put out the Amber Alert," Nelson said, referring to the child-abduction emergency alert system.

That same day, the hospital persuaded Common Pleas Court Judge Earl Trent to issue an emergency order. It said Nelson and other family members "shall not interfere with . . . monitoring, testing, and treatment of Dillen." If they do, the hospital "may restrict or prevent such family members from contact with Dillen."

Soon after, Nelson's uncle Sydney Pendleton went on a local radio show to decry the hospital's handling of the situation while her aunt Salima Cunningham turned to friends on Facebook for advice.

Dillen soon became a cause célèbre of some African American groups, notably the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, self-described as the "leading organization in the struggle for bread, peace, and black power in the 21st century." The group's website says it was founded in Chicago and has branches in several cities, including Philadelphia. It has been active in trying to reverse the murder conviction of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Uhuru's website called for Friday's protest outside the hospital, which it accuses of "injecting lethal amounts of morphine" into Dillen. Uhuru also urged supporters to complain to hospital officials at phone numbers Uhuru provided.

"That's how it took on a life of its own," said Cunningham, a local Realtor. "It's never been our intention for anyone to be personally attacked. ... I think Pennsylvania Hospital is a great hospital. But they refused to show Jade proof of why they believe the child is sick" and needs drug weaning.

Dillen is Nelson's second child, which added to her conviction that the treatment was unnecessary. She said she successfully refused the treatment when her daughter was born at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania - part of the same health system as Pennsylvania Hospital.

Nelson, who is living with her grandmother in North Philadelphia, said she visits her baby daily. "I don't know exactly when he will be released," she said. "It could be soon."

Phillips, the hospital spokeswoman, agreed: "Soon."

Contact Marie McCullough at 215-854-2720 or

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