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Hospital volunteers provide cuddling comfort to newborns

Loving hugs and touches help youngest patients thrive

POSTED: June 22, 2014 1:00 a.m.

Every Tuesday, Louis Gibbs begins his shift at the hospital by scrubbing his hands with the intensity of a surgeon.

He’s not a nurse or a physician, but the 78-year-old Gainesville man is tasked with caring for some of the hospital’s most vulnerable patients. He’s known as a “cuddler,” a volunteer who holds babies in the Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

Numerous health-related organizations including the March of Dimes, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend parents have ample physical contact and hold babies often after birth. Many health organizations are encouraging parents to use the “kangaroo care” method of holding babies by giving skin-to-skin contact.

Health groups recommend the contact because of the physical benefit, which is easily noticed.

“It’s cool to see,” NICU nurse manager Janessa Alonso said. “Once they’re on their mommy’s or daddy’s chest, you can see how their oxygen requirements lessen, their vital signs become very stable. It’s pretty cool to see.”

But many parents with infants in the NICU just aren’t able to be near their children all day. That’s where the cuddlers come in.

“A lot of times, especially when they’re here for a couple weeks or months, their parents have to go back to work or they’re not able to be here every single hour ,” Alonso said. “So it’s reassuring for those parents to know someone is here giving attention to and loving on their babies.”

The volunteers do not provide the skin-to-skin cuddling of kangaroo care, but they do provide two arms and a gentle embrace.

“It’s an opportunity for that baby to pretty much just feel loved,” the NICU nurse manager said. “The cuddlers come in and hold them and read to them and interact (with) them. Many times we have babies that have been here for several weeks or months and start to require more and want to interact with somebody.

“I think the babies benefit tremendously.”

The babies aren’t the only ones who benefit.

Gibbs, a great-grandfather, said he’s always had a soft spot in his heart for “the little people” and feels like he’s found his niche in caring for them.

“I was exposed to the NICU as part of the wisdom project with Brenau (University) and the (Greater Hall County) Chamber of Commerce,” Gibbs said. “One of the tours we took was at the hospital and they walked us through the NICU ward and I could feel the energy in there. I just fell in love with all the little babies and all their guardian angels. You could almost feel the presence.”

Gibbs signed up to volunteer shortly after the tour, took a few short courses on what he could expect to encounter and a tuberculosis test. Then he began cuddling babies.

For all of the heartache that comes along with caring for the babies, Gibbs said it’s all worth it when he’s able to watch them grow stronger and “graduate” from their stay in the NICU.

“I held one little baby, a little girl, for three hours yesterday,” Gibbs said. “It seemed to help her a lot. She calmed down. It’s a tremendous blessing for me.”

While Gibbs said cuddling is “the highlight of my week,” it’s an emotionally difficult job at times.

“Some days I just go home feeling blessed,” Gibbs said. “Some days I’m emotionally drained, just overwhelmed. Some days you walk out of the hospital fighting back tears.”

Babies enter the unit for a number of reasons and volunteers must be mindful of feeding and breathing tubes, IVs and monitors.

“It’s a little scary at first, until you get the feel for it,” Gibbs said. “They can make you laugh and they can make you cry or somewhere in between. They’re just all little individuals and they have their own particular little sets of problems. It’s wonderful to be exposed to them ... It’s a great feeling.”


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