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Local Heroes: Special hands help fragile babies in the Stanford NICU

CC Flickr user Evelyn, resized and recropped


Thousands of babies are born at Stanford Children's hospital each year, and most of them go home with their parents. But for some families, the joy of giving birth becomes a nightmare.

Premature babies or babies with major problems at birth are rushed to the hospital’s level four neonatal intensive care unit, more commonly called “the NICU.”


Hundreds of newborns are even flown in from other cities in order to receive specialized care there. These are babies born in distress. Some are have organs that aren’t working properly and need corrective surgery or transplants.


The NICU is filled with massive equipment, doctors, nurses, worried parents, and fragile newborn babies.


It is a unique space where science and the spirit connect and heal.


“We can take babies that are just considered viable, which is 23-24 weeks gestation,” says Maureen Roberts, a NICU nurse at Stanford Children’s hospital. “Before or after cardiac surgery. We take care of babies that get dialysis.”


For dozens of newborns this space is home temporarily, but their parents can’t always be there to hold and comfort them.


That’s when a group of trained volunteers fill in with an extra set of hands. They are called “cuddlers”.


“The cuddler program is so great because we all want to see our babies get positive touch and stimulation, be held more, and it is so nice for us to have the cuddlers come and hold our babies,” says Roberts.


“People will look at you because we wear blue smocks and say, ‘I am so happy to see you! We have a baby for you!’” says cuddler Claire Fitzgerald.


Fitzgerald and her husband Pat Rice have been cuddlers for about 20 years. Stanford Children’s hospital has about 100 cuddler volunteers, and Pat is one of very few men who are part of the program. He’s known around the NICU for his deep voice and gentle demeanor.


“My affect, when I sit down to cuddle a baby, creates an energy field around the baby and the environment that we are sitting in," explains Rice. "and if I am irritated, agitated, strained, upset, that is what I am bringing emotionally to the baby.”


“Pat has a baritone voice that when he sings, you know, his chest must be vibrating with the music that comes out, and he can put any baby to sleep they just turn to jello,” says staff nurse Maureen Roberts.


Make no mistake, though, the NICU can be a very stressful place, because some of the babies don’t make it. Roberts says the medical staff and the cuddlers have to navigate through this tough circumstance too.


“No one should die alone, especially not a baby,” she says. “It is so important that this baby is loved, and held, and supported in those last days of life. I am always so proud of our cuddlers who don’t have a medical background. They hold those babies, and they comfort those babies, and I have never once had a cuddler say, ‘I can’t do this.’”


"It is really hard. I held this beautiful baby, and the nurse asked me to do that because they were having a care conference to take a baby off of life support," Fitzgerald remembers. “The thing that is, I guess, my reaction to that, other than the tears, is that I am really happy that I could give that child comfort for that short period of time.”


So what is it like, as a parent, to have a stranger, who is not a medical professional, holding and comforting your child?


Seyi McLelland  is a mom. She and her husband David have a six-year-old girl named Laurel and three-year-old twins, Oliver and Skye. All of their kids were born prematurely, so the family has spent many, many hours in the Stanford NICU with the cuddlers. 


McLelland says her first experience was with Rice.


McLelland says, “My heart stops. Mother bear came out in full force. It is the most awful thing to see someone else holding your child. I didn’t know about the cuddler program at this time. But I had to talk to myself for a few seconds. I had to calm myself and say its okay, its okay, its okay. He saw me and calmed me down. He asked it if it was okay to hold my baby, and I realized I was being silly. I said it is absolutely fine and from that moment, it was okay.”


McLelland stresses that despite the difficult journey, their family’s story is a story of joy. And the cuddlers who nurtured their babies have a lot to do with that.


“You know, they actually nurture the whole family,” she says. “Not just the baby. It is you as well.”


She adds that once her kids get older, she wants to be a cuddler, too. That’s exactly the thought Claire Fitzgerald once had.


“I had a child in the hospital many years ago,” she says. “They thought my child had a brain tumor. Fortunately, he didn't. But I was one of those worried moms, and I said when my hair turns gray, I will come back and say ‘thank you,’ because I thought that was a great way to give back to the community.”


The cuddler program at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s hospital has been around for more than 25 years, and it is still going strong. It will continue to, so long as there are people like Pat Rice, Claire Fitzgerald, and Sayi McLelland, who want to pay it back and pay it forward.


Find out more about volunteering with the Stanford cuddlers program.

This story originally aired in June of 2017.