Volunteer Cuddlers ensure NICU babies never feel alone

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Christiana Care Health System marked a successful first year of the Cuddlers Program with a salute to the volunteers who generously share their time and tenderness with our littlest patients. These devoted volunteers ensure that babies receiving care in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and Continuing Care Nursery experience the ongoing human interaction so essential to their well being, especially when parents are juggling multiple responsibilities such as jobs and other children, and cannot always be at the hospital.

“Babies need love and touch to thrive,” said Carlos Duran, M.D., FAAP, chair of the NICU Patient and Family Centered Care Team. “Babies who are held more often sleep better, cry less and grow more. In fact, numerous studies show that the peaceful, loving interaction of cuddling leads to healthy weight gain and earlier discharge home. Cuddling is especially important for babies in the NICU who may endure a lot of negative stimuli such as light, noise, tubes and procedures, and is vital for babies experiencing the symptoms of drug withdrawal.”

While volunteers have been cuddling babies at Christiana Care for many years, the official Cuddlers Program was introduced in October 2014. Since then, 33 volunteers have participated in comprehensive classroom and hands-on training to understand the fragile nature of premature infants and to learn how to provide proper care.

Pam Green, manager of the Pediatric Therapy Team, oversees the training program. “Premature babies can easily become overwhelmed,” said Green. “Our therapists use a well-rounded approach to educate our cuddlers and help them recognize the cues that will ensure these babies receive the right manner and frequency of stimulation and comfort.”

Celebrating a year of Cuddlers: Pam Green, OT, manager of the Pediatric Therapy team; Carlos Duran, M.D., FAAP, chair of the NICU Patient and Family Centered Care team; Gloria Pharis, volunteer and retired NICU nurse; Rose Wessels, manager, Volunteer Services; Jean Kunkle, volunteer; Sherry Monson, vice president, Women's and Children's Services; Shirley Hills, volunteer and chair of the Junior Board of Christiana Care Inc. Maternity Committee;  Gretchen Fitzgerald; Margarita Rodriguez-Duffy, MSW, CAVS, director of Visitor & Volunteer Services; and Bonnie Chavez, BSN, RNC, assistant nurse manager, NICU.
Celebrating a year of Cuddlers: Pam Green, OT, manager of the Pediatric Therapy team; Carlos Duran, M.D., FAAP, chair of the NICU Patient and Family Centered Care team; Gloria Pharis, volunteer and retired NICU nurse; Rose Wessells, manager, Volunteer Services; Jean Kunkle, volunteer; Sherry Monson, vice president, Women’s and Children’s Services; Shirley Hills, volunteer and chair of the Junior Board of Christiana Care Inc. Maternity Committee;  Gretchen Fitzgerald; Margarita Rodriguez-Duffy, MSW, CAVS, director of Visitor & Volunteer Services; and Bonnie Chavez, BSN, RNC, assistant nurse manager, NICU.

Cuddlers provide a human touch and warmth when parents aren’t able to be at the bedside. “This gives our staff more time to work toward the exceptional experience we want for all of our patients,” said Susan Foster, BSN, RN NICU nurse manager, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The relationship between the nurses and the cuddlers has truly grown into one of mutual respect and appreciation.”

In the past year, the Christiana Care cuddlers have dedicated more than 800 hours and cuddled nearly 1,000 babies. Jean Kunkel has been cuddling babies at Christiana Hospital for 17 years, long before there was a formal program.

“I just want to be there for the babies who might need someone,” Kunkle said. “I know we’re helping the babies and their families, and the nurses as well, but I feel like I’m the lucky one.”

Shirley Hills, another long-time volunteer and chair of Christiana Care’s Junior Board Maternity Committee, echoed Kunkle’s sentiments. “It’s so peaceful holding these precious little ones and singing to them softly,” she said. “The rest of the world simply goes away.”

“We’re the winners,” added Gretchen Fitzgerald, another long-time volunteer who became a cuddler this year. “You can never hold these little miracles too much. It’s an absolute joy.”

Shawn R. Smith, vice president, Patient Experience, agrees that the program has a tremendous impact on both the babies and the volunteers. “The connections made are so powerful,” Smith said. “Our cuddlers provide not only comfort, but love to each one of these babies. It’s something that cannot be measured, and it truly defines The Christiana Care Way.”

At the recent anniversary celebration, Margarita Rodriguez-Duffy, MSW, CAVS, director of Visitor and Volunteer Services at Christiana Care, expressed her deepest appreciation to Dr. Duran for championing the Cuddlers Program, to the many departments involved in making this initiative a success, and most importantly, to our volunteers for their partnership.

“Never underestimate the healing power of touch,” Rodriguez-Duffy told the group. “Because of you — neighbors helping our tiniest neighbors — these babies are receiving the extra love and compassion they need to ­flourish. We are so very grateful for all that you do.”

To learn more about becoming a cuddler, call 302-733-1284.

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