Alaska’s largest hospital has been enforcing visitor restrictions to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
That means, starting almost a year ago, the fleet of Alaskans who make up Providence Alaska Medical Center’s Cuddle Corps could no longer come in to hold some of the hospital’s sickest newborns.
Then, Providence employees stepped in to fill the need.
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It’s a Saturday evening and Nathan Johnson is trying to soothe a tiny baby girl at Providence hospital in Anchorage.
“Oh, sweetpea, what’s going on?” he coos, as she wails. “You’ll be okay.”
They’re in the neonatal intensive care unit — the ICU for infants.
The baby Johnson is holding was born really early. She’s been in the hospital for more than two months, and only weighs about three or four pounds.
“When they’re swaddled, they’re like a compact little football,” Johnson said. “That’s about the size they are.”
Johnson has held the baby girl on almost half of the days she’s lived in the NICU. He’s watched her get taken off oxygen. He’s watched her vital signs improve. He’s watched her grow.
But Johnson isn’t the baby’s dad, or relative even: He works in Providence’s administration. And, he’s among a group of hospital employees who started volunteering last year in the NICU. They go in before or after work, or at lunch, or on the weekends, to hold some of Alaska’s tiniest and sickest babies who don’t have family around.
“It’s been an incredibly difficult year for everyone. With all of the isolation — there’s just so much fear and political mistrust and so many things going on,” Johnson said. “Stepping into this just felt like something pure and good in the face of such a trying year. And it’s been remarkable.”
Instead of Providence workers, it’s normally a group of volunteer Alaskans called the Cuddle Corps who dedicate hundreds of hours a month to holding the NICU babies.
But, like so many things, the coronavirus brought volunteering with patients to a halt last spring.
So Providence looked internally. About 10 employees, including Johnson, stepped up to the baby-holding task.
Ginny Shaffer, the NICU’s family-centered care coordinator, said holding and interacting with the babies is key for their development.
“When you see a baby being held skin-to-skin, you can watch that medical monitor, and you can see their heartbeat stabilize, their respiratory rate stabilize,” she said. “If you’ve read all the science, you know that that baby’s brain is developing, just from being held.”
At any one time, Providence has between 40 and 50 babies in its NICU.
Some stay for days, some for months.
Shaffer said the staff volunteers are focused on holding babies who don’t have family visiting.
That might be because the baby is headed to foster care, or because their parents had to return to work or travel back to their hometown. And because of pandemic restrictions, parents can’t ask a friend or relative to go hold the baby in their absence.
“It’s just really kind of hindered the care that a family typically could provide with friends or loved ones, you know, grandma, grandpa, your best friend that would be able to come in and help you,” Shaffer said.
It has made the volunteer cuddlers even more critical, she said.
Nurses are also happy to see them, she said. It’s nice to know a baby is getting an added layer of attention when family can’t be there.
Kerry Clark is another employee who started volunteering to hold babies last year.
She’s an occupational therapist, and usually goes to the NICU three times a week, after her normal workday is over. She’ll spend an hour or two with an infant.
She said the routine isn’t only good for the babies, but for her too.
It’s a balm at the end of a long day, and a welcome interaction during a time of isolation. Like some of the babies, Clark also has no family in town.
“So for me, in particular, where I could go like four or five months without getting a hug from anybody, this of course has been amazing,” she said. “I get to hold a baby. And if you like babies, there’s nothing like it.”
Clark likes to sing or talk to the baby she’s holding during her time in the NICU.
Johnson said he’s even attended meetings by phone with a baby on his chest.
But most often, he said, he’s holding the infant and rambling on about all the baby will be able to see once they leave the hospital, usually thinking of his 8-year-old son as he talks.
“It’s super exciting out here,” he tells one infant. “You can play with puppies, run in the snow, do all kinds of stuff.”
Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-550-8447.