When I was in Kindergarten, my school bus used to drop me off at the hospital where my mother worked. My older sister and I would sit quietly in my mom’s office and do our homework while she finished up her work. Most of my friends would get stickers or McDonald’s for their good behavior, but if my sister and I were on our best behavior, my mom would reward us by taking us to see the babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) – where a multidisciplinary team cares for premature and critically ill newborns. In the NICU it is not uncommon to see babies born 16 weeks early and weighing less than one pound! If we were really lucky, the nurses would give us a tiny pacifier or diaper to play with, which seemed tiny even compared to my five-year-old view of the world. I had no idea at the time that I wanted to become a neonatologist – a doctor who cares for babies in the NICU – but I knew that I just had to work with those tiny babies.
Growing up, I found every opportunity to be around young children. I worked as a mother’s helper, babysitter, and even coached circus. But none of these activities would allow me to work with the tiny premature babies that I had been thinking about since I was five. It wasn’t until 2009 that I convinced Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in New York City to create a cuddling program in their NICU. It took more than a year and several lawyers, but they finally gave us the go ahead to start volunteering.
When I got to the University of Vermont College of Medicine, I knew that I wanted to start a cuddling program in our NICU. I read an advertisement for the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, which provides support and funding for medical and law students to undertake a substantial community service project. While I knew that I was going to find a way to hold the babies in the NICU no matter what, the Schweitzer Fellowship provided me with the mentoring and structure to turn my passion into a project that will hopefully continue long after I have graduated. What started out as me holding babies in the evening after class quickly grew to a group of 18 cuddlers. In the past nine months, the cuddlers have volunteered over 750 hours holding babies in the NICU! Some of you may be wondering what exactly the NICU cuddlers do for all of these hours. When I tell people that I spend most of my time cuddling babies in the NICU, I get a lot of strange looks and nervous laughter. After people get over their initial shock, they often say “wait…so you just sit and hold a baby for three to four – hours at a time?” While this may be what it looks like at first glance, our medical student cuddlers do so much more.
In preparation for writing this blog post, I asked one of our NICU mothers what the cuddling program meant to her and her family. She replied: “If I could be here 24 hours a day with my daughter, I would. Knowing that my daughter is being held when I’m not there alleviates a lot of my guilt about not being here.” Later that evening, I tried to interview her daughter about what the cuddling program meant to her. Needless to say, she fell asleep during my interview.
Since none of the babies felt up for talking, I turned to other families and the medical literature. As with many experiences in life, many of our families have new insight into what their NICU stay meant to them in the months and years after their baby was discharged. Three NICU families shared their stories with me about one year after discharge. What really struck me the most was just how grateful these families are for the inter-disciplinary team that took care of their babes in the NICU. One mother wanted to thank all of the NICU staff members who took care of her son. I diligently and patiently took down all of the names of the physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, and even cuddlers who she wanted to thank. We were well over 30 staff members when I suggested that we just write a general thank you rather than naming every staff member with whom she had come into contact. The medical literature also underscores the impact of the cuddlers and the benefits of holding newborns, which include improved weight gain and quality of movement, less stress, arousal and excitability, and decreased need for treatment in opiate exposed newborns.
While years of being a research assistant in pediatric hematology/oncology tells me that nothing trumps a randomized controlled trial, my own experience tells me that the benefits of holding these babies go far beyond what we can measure. As medical students, we get inundated with hundreds and sometimes thousands of PowerPoint slides every week. We get buried in facts, research, and emails. There is no better reminder of why we wanted to go to medical school in the first place than the opportunity to remind a baby that they are not alone in this world.