NICU Cuddlers: In the arms of angels

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - There's something about holding a newborn baby. For some, it's hard to find the words to describe the feeling. For others, it's the most rewarding thing they do.

A group of women knows that feeling well. When you walk through the doors at the neonatal intensive care unit at Huntsville Hospital for Women and Children, there’s a sense of hope. Liz Smith calls it, “the most special place in the world.” It’s where miracles happen. “I can never imagine my life without being in this unit,” Smith adds.

Liz is one of the driving forces behind the NICU’s Cuddler Program. She was the very first volunteer. With a smile on her face, she said, “It's the most important thing other than raising my own children that I've ever done.” The Cuddlers started a year and a half ago. “We needed somebody to be here all the time,” Liz said. “And we're staffing from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. seven days a week because the hospital never closes.”

There are 37 trained Cuddlers. Fifty people are on the waiting list. Robin Jennings spends three or four hours several days a week holding and loving the babies in the unit. “I'm in training for grandmothership,” she said laughing. “We don't have any grandchildren so this is great practice.” But it’s more than that. “It's such an opportunity to give love, you know, share love and hope for these children that are sick,” Jennings said.

On average, 1,200 babies come through the Regional NICU every year. Smith adds, “And our job is to love them and help the staff and help the families while they are here.” Some have medical problems. “We do have a lot of intensive premature babies, infants but we have a large number of full term babies that are critically ill,’ Smith said.

Others are there because of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome or NAS. They’re addicted to drugs the mother took before giving birth. “It's tragic,” Smith said. “Their neurological systems are messed up. They're going through withdrawals.” One of the best treatments is rocking and just holding them. Smith adds, “They need constant attention and they need constant love and holding and personal touch.”

Robin Jennings loves being a volunteer Cuddler. “I think there's just a spirit here that is of goodness and joy and helpfulness and compassion, all of those things that work so well together,” Jennings said. “It's the one thing that I treasure more than anything else I've ever done.”

It takes training and a lot of commitment to be a NICU Cuddler. But if you think you have what it takes, here’s a link to the Huntsville Hospital Volunteer Program.

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