Volunteers cuddle Lutheran Generals hospitalized babies
Between the three of them, they have 10 children. At least one of them is a grandmother.
If there is one thing they know, it's how to cuddle a baby.
Trudy Lewis and Charmaine Roth, both of Des Plaines, and Laura O'Shea of Morton Grove all retired from their respective business careers after their own children were raised, and they searched for a meaningful volunteer position to fill their time.
They found one that draws on their collective mothering skills. In fact, their new position celebrates its one year anniversary this month at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital: volunteering in its Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
Approximately a dozen volunteers in all rotate shifts in the unit, holding babies when their parents cannot be there. And not just holding them — they spend time rocking, singing lullabies and talking to the hospital's tiniest patients.
"It's all the things their mother would do, if she could be here," says Mary Jane Bennett, a registered nurse in the unit.
Pam Jones-Gibson, clinical manager of the NICU, notes the physical benefits nurses observe in the newborns: their heart rates stabilize, their blood pressure goes down and their oxygen levels go up. All healthy signs, she says.
One day recently, the three volunteers took turns holding an infant from Waukegan, whose parents have other children at home and cannot visit him as often as they would like.
O'Shea likes to sing Broadway tunes, while Lewis and Charmaine both stick to tried and true nursery rhymes. One of their favorites, "Itsy, Bitsy Spider" seems to stimulate him both audibly and tactually.
When O'Shea takes him in her arms and sings, "Do, Re, Me," he seems to relax and even shows a hint of a smile.
Unit managers say parental consent must be obtained before volunteers may hold infants, and that the volunteers themselves go through extensive training.
They start in the hospital's Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, spending time with its young patients for approximately six months, before moving up to the NICU and its fragile infants.
"It helps to start in the PICU, where we get used to all of the tubes and equipment," explains Lewis, a former accountant and mother of two. "We're sort of eased into it."
Each baby in the NICU receives a variety of therapies and leaves the unit from time to time for different procedures. Mostly, the nurses say, they are sleeping. But during those times when they are awake, these volunteers provide much needed love and comfort.
"They are an extra pair of hands," Bennett adds. "They are comfortable around us and we're comfortable around them. We know they're helping the babies grow."
Child life specialists helped develop the program, believing that by partnering with volunteers, medical staff members can further their mission of family-centered care.
"Infants need a secure base, for proper emotional development to take place. This comes from receiving the comfort that touch and attention can provide," says Linda Bensing, a child life specialist.
"When a premature baby is calm, this restful state promotes physical growth," she adds. "Once NICU babies are stable, they can also benefit from gentle stimulation — such as hearing voices that are talking or singing, looking at faces and beginning to interact with others — in order to enhance cognitive skills that are necessary to begin to process their world."
If it sounds technical, it's not, the volunteers insist.
"It's the best part of my day," says Lewis, who volunteers three afternoons a week in the NICU.
Roth agrees, and when this veteran grandmother takes her place in the rocking chair in the unit, and Bennett places the Waukegan infant gently in her arms, she greets him playfully: "Come here, Peanut."
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