Pa. hospital ‘cuddler’ gives babies loving touch

LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) — Hazel Weaver is getting her weekly baby fix.

Maggi is getting a grandmother’s arms to surround her as she snoozes in the Hershey Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

Weaver, a 70-year-old New Holland resident, is calm and assured as she cradles Maggi, a tiny Lebanon County baby who was born at the end of July and weighs less than 5 pounds.

This mother of three and grandma of eight already knew her way around a baby when she began volunteering several years ago as a “cuddler,” someone who comes in to simply hold babies at the NICU.

With a soft cloud of golden hair, dressed in shirt, slacks and sensible shoes, Weaver rocks ever so slightly as she gazes down at Maggi, who holds her arms out straight in front of her as she slumbers swaddled in a pink, flowered blanket.

All around Weaver and Maggi is the high-tech world where the tiniest and sickest of babies are cared for: beeping heart monitors, feeding tubes that get hooked up to other machines, oxygen sensors and other gizmos. From the bottom of Maggi’s blanket are several wires that hook her to her own machines.

But the focus here is a pair of arms and a sleeping baby.

Drawn to the cuddler position by a small newspaper article calling for volunteers, Weaver had to undergo police clearances and fingerprint checks, as well as go through a general hospital orientation.

Other than that, she was on her own, though she really didn’t need a lot of direction.

“They don’t give you any training,” she said. “You have to hold the head up. And you can’t drop it.”

Not that she does only that.

Weaver, who is retired from her job as a lab technician at Tyson Foods, comes across as a practical, straightforward person, with a down-to-earth sense of humor.

She downplays her role as a cuddler, saying she has the easy job when compared with the nurses and parents of the tiny babies.

“I’d rather coochy-coo them and send them home,” she says. “I don’t have to remember if this baby gets breast milk or bottle fed.”

Keep in mind, however, that this is a woman who typically drives an hour both ways to hold babies for just three hours. In that time, she might get to hold two infants. Four is her record.

Weaver gets a little gooey when she talks about the children she has held. And her whole demeanor softens when she takes a baby into her arms.

“I usually do talk to the baby or hum, maybe ‘Jesus Loves Me,’” she says, before adding with a laugh, “I don’t publicize it. I’m not a singer. It’s not karaoke.”

The cuddler program began in 1999 at Hershey, to supplement the care of the babies in the hospital’s 35-bed NICU.

Nurses are often busy feeding, monitoring, changing or administering medications or medical care to the babies here, some who have been born too early, some who have complex medical conditions, others who have both backgrounds.

Parents cannot always be in the unit with the babies, due to work or other commitments. Some moms decide to postpone their maternity leave until after their babies leave the hospital.

That’s where the 17 cuddlers, many of them grandmotherly types like Weaver, fill the void.

Infants simply need to be touched and held, particularly in an environment where they are often poked and prodded due to their medical care.

When a baby is held, her heart rate and breathing are steady and slower. When a baby is touched, studies show that he sleeps better and gains more weight.

“To have human contact is so important,” says Patricia Avakian, interim nurse manager at the NICU. “It helps them to feel secure and all of their body systems respond to that.”

Cuddlers typically volunteer for a three-hour shift in the seventh-floor NICU, which is in the main medical center building.

Before holding babies, they scrub their hands for two minutes, just like a physician or nurse, to ensure they are germ-free.

They then walk around the glass-walled rooms and curtained-off patient bays to see who needs their attention.

In the three years she’s been a cuddler, Weaver has held about 300 babies with all kinds of backgrounds, including some who are born addicted to drugs, due to their mother’s addiction.

“They are restless,” she said. “They don’t know if they want to eat, sleep, drink … what they want to do.”

She will gently rock fussy babies or pat their bottoms, or hold them up over her shoulder — whatever seems to work to calm or soothe them.

Grouchy, sleepy or squirmy, the babies get her undivided attention and concern no matter what is going on around her.

“Some days, it’s busier in there,” she said. “You can just kind of hear, in the big room, a lot of noises. Sometimes it is very, very quiet.”

Weaver is careful to observe families’ privacy. She will note a child’s name when she is holding the baby, but that is all. Sometimes she knows what the child’s medical issue is, other times she does not.

She does overhear some interesting conversations.

“One time, this woman had two babies in a room,” she said. “She actually had triplets and one was in another area.

“The following week, when she went home with the two, the nurse said, ‘Do you think you’ll have more children?’ She said, ‘Oh, absolutely not.’”

“Weaver is a constant admirer of the mothers who come to the unit when they can, pumping their breast milk and freezing it for later feedings, or sleeping, exhausted, as they hold their own babies.

Volunteering as a cuddler isn’t all that Weaver does. She and her husband, Donald G. Weaver, visit people in nursing homes and regularly serve dinner to homeless people in Lancaster, through their church, New Holland Evangelical United Methodist. She also is a curator at the New Holland Museum.

But on Fridays, at 10 a.m., you can find her in a rocking chair in Hershey.

“They are in the best place they can be in, to be helped back to health,” she said. “And there’s nothing else I can do, other than hold them.”

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Information from: Lancaster Sunday News, http://www.lancasteronline.com

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Information from: Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era , http://lancasteronline.com

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