Volunteers love, care for babies

Cheryl Clark, in her seventh year as a special care volunteer at MUSC, rocks a premature baby during her two-hour shift.

Ever seen a little baby attached to intravenous tubes? Ever watched a tiny infant born prematurely fight for every breath and instinctively try to grab onto life with all the grip strength the little fingers can muster? Those are common moments in most pediatric wings of most hospitals. In the neonatal intensive care unit at MUSC, those scenes occur daily.

We're fortunate to have highly skilled doctors and nurses who dedicate themselves to this area of medicine. We should be thankful that the MUSC Children's Hospital offers such life-saving opportunities and state-of-the-art technology here in our backyard.

There are others who play a part in a child's recovery, though, that are not doctors, nurses or even relatives. In some hospitals, they're called cuddlers. At MUSC, they're known as special care volunteers.

Nurses can't be everywhere at every moment. A new parent cannot always be at that baby's crib to wipe a tear or rearrange a blanket. It's at these moments that these special care volunteers scrub up and offer a helping hand.

Just who are these folks? In most cases, they're just people who care. Some are grandmas, some are empty-nesters and in some cases, they're even grandpas.

The science of what they do is not exact. There are some studies that suggest that the human touch is beneficial to preemies. Being held often reduces the heart rate and encourages sleep.

A volunteer might just hold the baby, at first. But that also often leads to rocking, or singing, or swaddling the child to add additional comfort and security.

At MUSC, Melissa Kubu interviews prospective volunteers. They all must agree to a background check. Kubu then attempts to determine which area that volunteer might be best suited for.

Only a select few will be privileged to sit in that rocking chair. A special care volunteer is the most coveted volunteer position sought, but also the most closely chosen.

An intensive care unit can sometimes be a stressful and noisy environment. The work necessary to bring a premature baby through its first challenging days, and sometimes weeks, often requires a healthy dose of miracles mixed with medicine.

It's not always easy to cuddle a child that's attached to tubes. To these volunteers, though, unruly tubes are quickly forgotten when that child smiles or merely relaxes a tiny eyebrow.

The volunteers know nothing about the baby's background or the problems facing that child and the family. For that two-hour shift, all you need is love.

Depending on the needs of the unit's charge nurse, in addition to holding, rocking or singing to that infant, it might be necessary for that volunteer to fold a few blankets for others to use once the shift ends.

Cheryl Clark is one of 58 special care nursery volunteers at the Children's Hospital. On a recent Monday, her shift starts by holding 1-month-old Gabrielle who weighed 21/2 pounds at birth. In a nearby crib, little Luke is starting to stir and will need some rocking chair attention, too.

There are a multitude of doctors and nurses with degrees and knowledge beyond compare who do all they can to give life and hope to these little ones.

But it's the special care volunteers who bring their life experience and wrap that child in the arms of care and comfort, and who lend a hand to the healing process.

Amidst the daily concerns and confusion faced by doctors, nurses and family members, how heart-wrenching to hear the faint tune of "You Are My Sunshine" or "Hush, Little Baby" coming from a nearby rocking chair.

For volunteers, that time with a baby they don't even know, might just be their best-spent two hours of the week.

Reach Warren Peper at 937-5577 or wpeper@postandcourier.com.