The volunteer "cuddler" program at Miller Children's Hospital in Long Beach is making a real difference for families with sick newborns. Volunteers spend hours taking care of babies in the NICU when their parents can't be with them. Chuck Henry reports for NBC4 News on Jan. 30, 2013.
For nearly three decades, John Hauck worked for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He worked patrol, investigations and narcotics; and spent his share of time with suspects and criminals.
Now, he spends his time holding and rocking sick babies.
"Babies are good people," John said. "In the Sheriff’s Department, we didn’t always deal with good people."
John is one of a growing team of volunteer "cuddlers" at Miller Children’s Hospital in Long Beach.
He looks down at the tiny swaddled being resting in his arms, and melts into a smile. "Look at that little face," he said. "That’ll break your heart won’t it?"
John has no children of his own. He assumed babies were born and a few days later, mom and baby go home. But that is not always the case.
On any given day, Miller Children’s Hospital will have between 50 and 96 infants in their Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). The day NBC4 visited, 78 babies were trying to get strong enough to go home.
"I don’t think a lot of people realize how tough these little guys have it," John said. "From the get go they are fighting for their lives."
Nikki Conkings is also a volunteer cuddler, and she understands first-hand the anguish of leaving a newborn in the NICU. Her son was born at Miller Children’s Hospital 34 years ago, and spent three weeks in the NICU.
"It’s horrible – horrible not to have your baby home with you," she said.
Now she volunteers as a way of giving back to nurses who took such good care of her little boy. Nikki thinks the cuddlers bring a needed sense of calm to an environment and experience that can be very stressful for parents.
"We are in that calm place," she said. "We are rocking, singing. It transfers. It relaxes them. That’s our job to get them calmed down and relaxed and that helps them to heal."
Nursing staff at the hospital said the cuddlers "pinch hit" for parents. Because as much as parents want to be at the hospital with a sick newborn, it is not realistic. They may have other children at home. Some babies will spend months in the NICU and parents may have to return to work. Sometimes the time may be just brief enough to grab a shower and a sandwich.
After talking to Melinda Manlove, whose twins have been in the NICU for several weeks, it is clear that these cuddlers also bring comfort to moms. She wells up as she explains, "It’s amazing to know that I don’t have to worry that they are going to cry long ‘cause someone will be there to pick them up and love them when I am not here."
The program at Miller Children’s Hospital was started in 2004 by two veteran NICU nurses. Kate Daeley said simply that touch is "medicine." Mary Chinchilla adds, "Science is proving what Mother Nature has always known that babies need to be held."
Studies now show that being held can improve a baby’s body temperature, blood pressure, and weight and brain development. Daeley has seen evidence of this over and over again.
"They are going home healthier because they are being held," she said.
And there is another important reaction to being held. Chinchilla said premature babies need significant medical attention, and that means needles and tubes, poking and prodding. As a result, "they learn to distrust human touch and they get afraid."
She believes the cuddlers help these children understand that touch can also be nurturing. "It’s a gift," she said.
Volunteers will hold a baby from 45 minutes to four hours at a time. It is not a surprise that sharing such an intense experience creates a bond between the cuddlers and families.
Vicki Edwards said she "feels for the sick kids." She never had children of her own, and this kind of volunteer work has long been on her "bucket list."
Vicki was the "primary cuddler" for Derrick Cervantes for the six months he was in the NICU. During that time, the little boy had five surgeries. She said having the consistency was helpful because she knew how he liked to be held and how to avoid the areas that were sensitive because of his operations.
Vicki beams when she talks about Derrick. During that time, they came to know each other. She said they would "have conversations, and we would sing and play patty-cake." She sums it up with a sentimental smile saying, "Just love him."
Derrick’s mom, Ashley Cervantes said, "Derrick just fell in love with her, and so did we."
In the ten months since Derrick was released from the NICU, he has had to return to the hospital for four more procedures. With each visit, Vicki was there. Ashley saw the impact Vicki had on Derrick.
"He would feel the love. He knew there wasn’t going to be any pain from this person," she said. "He was so comfortable and peaceful. To see him comfortable made me comfortable."
Not too long ago, Vicki attended Derrick’s baptism, and she plans on being a part of his life.
Today Derrick is a smiling, toddling toddler. His mom said the connection between Derrick and Vicki is evident. "He lights up when he sees her still," she said.
Touch is the most fundamental way to connect with another person. And while Derrick may never remember those long days in the NICU, Vicki will never forget.
"He’s my heart," she said. "I love that child. He will always be a part of me."
For information on how to volunteer with or donate to the cuddlers program, click here to send an email.