Patricia Schery loves coming to the rescue.
When Schery walked into the newborn nursery at Stony Brook University Hospital one recent morning, nurse Daria Cwalinska was visibly relieved. Cwalinska was holding a crying baby awaiting a circumcision. “He’s just very fussy because he’s hungry, but he can’t eat before the procedure. He’s kind of inconsolable right now,” Cwalinska explained.
“Oh pumpkin,” Schery said to the baby. “Look at him.” Then Schery sat in a rocking chair to do her job: cuddle the baby.
Schery, 64, of Setauket is one of the hospital’s 10 Baby Cuddlers, volunteers who work three to four-hour shifts soothing, rocking, singing to or reading to the up to 42 babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit or, if those babies are resting comfortably, in the newborn nursery. Almost as soon as Schery started to rock the baby, he fell asleep cradled in her arms. “The arms are really very magical,” said Schery, who is retired from the hospital's finance department.
Indeed, the human touch is emotionally and socially healing to the babies who otherwise might be lying in their incubator, bassinet or crib, medical professionals say. The cuddlers can be a blessing for parents whose premature or sick babies spend weeks or months in the neonatal intensive care unit, often referred to as the NICU. When those parents can’t be at the hospital around the clock because they have to work or because they have other children at home, a cuddler can offer the baby added attention. And there’s the bonus that the extra hands relieve stress on the nursing staff that’s tasked with essential medical responsibilities.
Baby Cuddler programs are expanding on Long Island.
NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola is aiming to dispatch up to 10 volunteers this summer, says Jean Zebroski, director of volunteer services. “We’re telling our volunteers to brush up on their lullabies,” she says. Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip launched one in November. Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park and St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown each launched programs in 2017; Stony Brook launched its program in 2016 and it is planning to up its roster by 50 percent to 15 volunteers this year.
“There is evidence out there that says these babies who are comforted and held have shorter hospital stays, quicker weight gain and overall improvement in their development,” says Neila Hernandez, director of St. Catherine’s Women-Child Care Center.
“These cuddlers provide such a useful service,” says Dr. Joanne Beachy, medical director of the NICU and associate chief of neonatology at Cohen, where the unit can have up to 57 babies at once. Cohen neonatal nurse Lucille Ventura says simply: “We love them.”
Typically one or two cuddlers are working at a time. Volunteers might be holding babies their entire shift, but if the babies are all sleeping or comfortable, volunteers will fold diapers and blankets and stock toiletries and supplies for the nurses. Parents often express gratitude to the volunteers who embrace their babies, the volunteers say.
"I think it's a great program," says Fran Kegel, 44, of Massapequa, whose daughter, Katrianna, was born eight weeks premature and has spent four weeks so far in the neonatal intensive care unit at Good Samaritan. "I'm there every day in the morning, but I have four other kids besides her. I have to come home and take care of them. The nurses do a great job and they're very attentive, but it's that extra rocking in the rocking chair that keeps the babies comforted."
Most volunteers are women, and the position is so coveted that several of the hospitals have waiting lists 20-plus people long, organizers say. John Daley, 72, of Garden City, a grandfather of two and the former chief executive of a charitable foundation, is the lone man at Cohen. “What I wanted to do was be in a position to help families, even though we are a small part of the wheel,” he says.
Sometimes a cuddler might hold a baby upright for 30 minutes after a feeding to help with its digestion, nurses say. And babies born to drug addicts are especially irritable as they detox; the surge in opioid use has increased the numbers of what are referred to as neonatal abstinence babies, says Kim Kassel, interim nurse manager for Stony Brook’s NICU.
“If you have one that’s going through drug withdrawal, I hold them close and tight to me so they know whatever they’re going through, they’re not alone,” says Cohen volunteer Letitia Thompson, 62, of Cambria Heights, Queens, a retired supervisor in the Manhattan Transit Authority’s subway system.
The volunteers go through training instructing them on infectious disease control and privacy laws, and they aren’t told why each baby is in the unit. At Stony Brook, volunteers wear royal blue blazers and buttons that say, “Ask me about cuddling.” At Cohen, they wear turquoise polo shirts.
Sometimes they get attached to certain infants. “There was a baby who was abandoned. He didn’t even have a name. That’s the baby I ran to as much as I could,” says Cohen volunteer Elaine Abramson, 68, of Point Lookout, a retired technology expert. Some babies are so premature it’s especially heartbreaking, she says. “Their fingers are thinner than a tine on a fork. You can’t believe they could be alive,” she says.
The babies are poked with needles and attached to tubes to get them well enough to go home. “There’s a lot of medical touch they are receiving. That can be really traumatizing,” says Stony Brook volunteer Jodi Abbinanti, 46, of Port Jefferson Station. “We get to give them a moment of peace. When you are speaking quietly or humming, you’re some kind of soothing presence. Even though I’m a stranger, they feel that.”