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Cuddlers help premature babies thrive

Volunteers at a Chicago hospital provide much-needed human contact --

July 19, 2009|Bonnie Miller Rubin

CHICAGO — Holding a baby barely larger than her hand, Barbara Whitfield coos to the infant, his translucent eyelids fluttering slightly before surrendering to sleep.

But in the neonatal intensive care unit at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, it would be difficult to tell just who in this duo is more serene.

"How many people get to surround themselves with this kind of peace?" she asked, tightly wrapping a receiving blanket around the 4-pounder. "A few hours here will carry me for the rest of the week."

Forget yoga, massage or meditation. Whitfield, 62, has discovered tranquillity as a "cuddler" -- a volunteer who helps premature babies thrive.

The civilians say the enforced solitude is the perfect antidote to these uncertain times and that it is they who receive far more benefit than they give.

Volunteerism is up everywhere -- one of the few silver linings to a grim economic and employment picture. Cuddler programs are so popular that hospitals often have waiting lists. At Rush, the wait can be a year or more.

Administrators say it's tough to resist a gig where the job description can be summed up as: "To soothe." And although a couple of hours of snuggling won't boost your 401(k), it can do wonders for your perspective. Newborns are a tangible sign of optimism, a pristine canvas on which to project an unwavering belief in the future.

"It's about as pure a relationship as you can get," said Steve Kubiczky, one of Rush's few male huggers. "You just have to leave your baggage at the door."

Rush's program started in 1990, a response to the neonatal nursery's plea for more help. The unit cares for 600 to 700 critically ill newborns a year (out of 2,100 births).

Some of the infants -- tethered to IVs, heart monitors and ventilators -- are so fragile that their stay here can stretch into six months or more. So even with a ratio of one nurse for every two babies, there are never enough arms to go around.

Cuddlers don't just assist medical personnel but often pinch-hit for parents, who must return to work or are home caring for other children. And human contact is too essential an ingredient to overlook, according to a 2001 study at Rush, which showed infants who received sensory intervention exhibited better mental and motor skills than those who were not held.

"We know the importance of tactile stimulation to an infant's overall health and well-being," said Dr. Robert Kimura, chair of neonatology. "These folks are invaluable members of the healthcare team."

For Whitfield, the catalyst to get involved was an unruptured aneurysm five years ago. "I believe I was spared for a reason," she says.

It is the calmness of the nursery -- with its low lighting and hushed voices -- that has kept her coming back for more. She is struck by the skill she can bring to this task compared with when her own son was born 33 years ago.

"You don't have the same anxiety and fear you have as a first-time mom . . . now I just get to spread love and peace around, which the world certainly needs."

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brubin@tribune.com

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