Babies born drunk

'My baby
was born drunk'

March 14, 1999

Maza Weya knows she won't live down the worst mistake of her life, but she is determined to shed light on the dangers of fetal alcohol syndrome

By Eric Newhouse  
Tribune Projects Editor

FORT BELKNAP "When they put my baby on my breast, I knew something was wrong, so I lifted my head to look at him," Maza Weya said of her newborn.

Maza Weya wraps herself in a bed sheet as she remembers her life as an alcoholic on skid row. The sheet came from the old Weiss Hotel in downtown Great Falls and is now her most prized possession because it reminds her of how far she has come.
-- Tribune photo by Larry Beckner

"I could smell the alcohol on his breath," she said. "My baby was born drunk."

After years of drinking everything she could get her hands on, Maza Weya has managed to become sober.

Her son isn't so lucky.

Scarred in the womb by alcohol abuse, he suffered permanent brain damage and is abnormally small.

Fetal alcohol syndrome may affect three dozen babies in Montana each year at a lifetime cost estimated at $1.4 million each.

"Alcohol continues to be a bigger threat to larger numbers of children than any illicit drug known to man, including cocaine," said Ann Streissguth, of the University of Washington's fetal alcohol unit.

Treating and caring for the victims of fetal alcohol syndrome is estimated to cost more than $2.5 billion each year nationally.

"In the 10 years since the surgeon general recommended not drinking during pregnancy, there have been at least 70,000 children born in the United States with full FAS," she said.

Then there's a less severe form of the syndrome, fetal alcohol effects, which may affect twice as many babies.

Some doctors also believe drinking by pregnant mothers may be one cause of attention deficit disorder, which has been swelling special education classes.

Since 1979, the number of pregnant mothers who drink heavily has increased dramatically, according to the U.S. Department of Health.

Physical damage is possible for any child whose mother drinks during pregnancy, but counselors at the two treatment centers in Great Falls, Benefis Healthcare and the public school district have a patient load that's predominantly Native American.

"That's because Native (American) people are more comfortable with FAS and speaking about alcoholism, but when you leave the reservation, it's still taboo and there's a lot of denial," said Carlene Red Dog, former FAS coordinator on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

But the U.S. Department of Health says some populations are at greater risk for FAS. In fact, the department says the incidence of FAS among Native Americans is more than 30 times that for whites. That number varies greatly among Native American communities.

In bondage to alcohol

Alcohol had ruled the life of Maza Weya, an Assiniboine Indian whose name is translated "Iron Woman."

It started when she first drank herself into a blackout at 15.

"My twin brother excelled at everything," she said, "so I excelled at being an alcoholic."

Her drinking worsened after a marriage ended, and she left two children behind when she became infatuated with a man she met in treatment.

"I ended up by going back to his small community in North Dakota with him," she said. "He was from a prominent white family, and I was the only Indian in town.

"There, I became a raging, raving alcoholic."

She also became pregnant, and they fought and drank for eight months. Then he died in a car wreck.

She returned to Fort Belknap and, even after her son was born, didn't stop drinking.

In fact, she said, doctors recommended she drink two or three beers a day in order to have better breast milk and she took that as permission to keep drinking heavily.

"But I don't blame anyone for that recommendation," she said. "Doctors didn't know as much about the effects of alcohol then."

The final drink

After five months, her family intervened and took her baby to raise.

She kept drinking everything from whiskey to Lysol spray, she said and ended up on skid rows, in detox units and in jails.

She remembers spending nights in the old Weiss Hotel in downtown Great Falls and has a patched bed sheet to remind her of her fall from grace.

The end came when she received legal notification that her sister had adopted her son, and she hadn't been there for the adoption.

"My last drink wasn't a can of beer or a shot of whiskey or a glass of wine," she said. "I found a bottle of perfume, and I drank it."

Working through some 12-step sobriety programs, she began to turn her life around. She came back to the reservation to become a drug and alcohol coordinator in the school system and began to realize the damage she had done.

"My son is an exceptional person, but I noticed that in school he was just a little shadow against the wall," she said.

Finding a purpose

Her son stands 5 feet tall and weighs about 95 pounds.

"Finally, I had to tell him that I had been drinking most of the time I was carrying him and that it affected him," said Weya.

"And he asked why I didn't love him enough that I wouldn't drink while he was inside me. He asked why I had made him so small when he wanted to be tall and strong. He asked if I had given him up because he wasn't perfect, because he was damaged.

"We were both crying," she said, "but all I could do was sit there and take it."

Finally, she told her son that she had to give him up to save his life, a concept he still struggles with.

"I'm not proud of what I've done, but I'm not ashamed of it either," said Weya, now FAS coordinator for the reservation. "I think God put me in this role for a purpose."

Maza Weya holds a model of a fetus next to a bottle containing a raw egg that has been cooked by grain alcohol. She uses them as props to demonstrate to young women the dangers of drinking while pregnant.
-- Tribune photo by Larry Beckner

These days, she is counseling women about the dangers of drinking while pregnant, using her own life story as an example. Because of the work being done at Fort Belknap, her office also has a grant from the University of New Mexico to study the problem on the reservation.

It's an uphill battle because it's a worsening problem and not just for Native Americans.

Pregnant binges

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta estimates that 1,200 infants are born each year have FAS, which has been labeled the leading cause of mental retardation.

A recent study by University of Washington researchers found that 52 percent of the women surveyed had used alcohol at some time during their pregnancies, and 13 percent had consumed five or more drinks on one occasion a phenomenon known as binge drinking.

Studies indicate that greater damage is done to unborn children whose mothers have numerous drinks at one setting.

In a study of 114,000 women in 46 states, the Centers for Disease Control found four times as many pregnant binge drinkers in 1995 as it had found in 1991.

"Binge drinking is becoming a more popular pattern of alcohol use among pregnant women," it noted.

The study said the number of diagnosed fetal alcohol syndrome children was six times greater in 1993 than it had been in 1979. But officials note that there is better awareness now of FAS, which means better reporting.

Montana rates higher

The best estimate now is that one or two children per 1,000 births are afflicted with full fetal alcohol syndrome, while twice that many more have fetal alcohol effects.

The rates appear to be higher in Montana, said Cathy McCann, genetics counselor for Shodair Children's Hospital in Helena.

"I would bet that more than 50 percent of the patients that we see are for the evaluation of fetal alcohol," she said.

Although the state health department doesn't keep track of fetal alcohol conditions, McCann estimated the FAS rate at three children per thousand and said it probably affects 30 to 40 newborns a year in Montana.

Analyzing her own hospital's data over a four-year period, 1995 though 1998, she discovered 59 FAS diagnoses, 356 FAE diagnoses, and 324 cases in which fetal alcohol exposure was suspected but not proved.

"I think Montana is a little higher than the rest of the nation, but I would not attribute that to a higher proportion of Native Americans," she said. "I think drinking is a pastime that occurs in stressful, isolated situations.

"When you look at the fact that we are geographically and socially isolated, when you look at where we stand with wages and the numbers of second jobs, when you consider the relatively high cost of living compared to the salaries paid, I think all of these are stressors."

The egg lady

On the Fort Belknap Reservation, Weya works to lessen the damage of alcohol.

She's known as "the egg lady" because when she talks to school students, she pours grain alcohol on a raw egg at the beginning of her lecture. By the time she has finished, the egg is hardboiled.

"Fetal alcohol syndrome is 100 percent preventable," she tells them, "and it's 100 percent irreversible once you pour alcohol over the egg in your womb."

She works to keep pregnant women sober, and she works with the children who have been victimized by alcohol abuse.

In all of their faces, she sees her own son.

"I go to bed every night thinking about what I've done," she said, "and I'll go to my grave thinking about it."

Original Source:Great Falls Tribune March 14, 1999

Next Article
FAS Community Resource Center