When Jane Steinard first started as a volunteer Cuddler for Fauquier Hospital in January, it was hard on her heart. The Cuddlers, a four-person subset of Fauquier Health’s volunteer force, help to provide warmth and security for infants who are born withdrawing from drugs. The medical term for their condition is Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS).
Steinard said, “These babies, they are all so beautiful. There is something special about each and every one of them. It was hard for me to see how upset they were. I saw this very troubled situation and it impacted me. It was taking a toll.”
Cheryl Poelma, director of the Intensive Care Nursery (ICN), explained, “After they are born, the newborns with NAS are given medication to help with their withdrawal symptoms. The medication is slowly reduced as the infant improves. Withdrawing can make the infant uncomfortable and irritable. Reducing stimulation and promoting a quiet environment helps these infants recover. Holding and cuddling these infants also helps in their recovery.”
As Steinard continued to work with the NAS newborns, she started to see significant improvement in their moods and attention. She saw that day by day, slowly, the babies began to relax and come back to themselves. Steinard said that fellow Cuddler Joan Anthony told her that Olympic gymnast Simone Biles was born to a mother who was addicted to drugs and alcohol. “That showed me that there’s a lot of hope. Whatever little bit of help we can give these children, we will.”
Cuddler Joan Anthony nodded, “One little boy I was cuddling was really impacted by the drug withdrawal. He was having a very hard time. He was so distressed, but by the time he was set to leave the ICN, he was ready to take on the world.”
Cuddler Bette Hine said, “Each baby possesses something extraordinary. From the start, when they are on more medication, they can be lethargic. By the time they are discharged, they are alert and curious.”
Bette Hine’s husband Bill has been trained as a Cuddler, but has not been called in yet. He said, “Unfortunately, this program is going to be more important than ever. Drug deaths were up 17 percent between 2016 and 2017. There were 72,000 deaths from overdose in 2017. And the proportion among pregnant women is skyrocketing.”
Deb Clinard, of Fauquier Hospital’s Volunteer Services, said that would-be Cuddlers must volunteer in other parts of the hospital for six months before they can be considered for the Cuddler program. She said that she wants to make sure that applicants have the patience, reliability and temperament for this delicate job.
Cuddlers are called in as they are needed, in two-hour shifts. “Sometimes we tag team,” said Anthony.
Clinard said, “I look for someone who understands the importance of confidentiality, who is relaxed and can work as part of a team, someone who can take things in stride and has a very flexible schedule. Sometimes we know when we will be getting a baby who needs cuddling, and sometimes there are walk-ins.”
Clinard has seven Cuddler hopefuls ready to be trained and would like to eventually have 20 on the team.
Anthony said, “I never had the ability to give this kind of service. It’s an incredible gift. Sometimes I think about the alienation, the isolation of the mothers that may have caused their addiction. We can be a silent second family to them, the cheering section they can never hear. Little things done with love can make the difference. I have put my other volunteer efforts on notice. I have to be available for this.”
All of the current Cuddlers are parents and grandparents. Anthony has been an attorney and a judge; Steinard has worked as a school secretary and day-care owner; Bette and Bill Hine are trained EMTs. But nothing prepared them for the fulfillment they get from comforting a stranger’s baby.
Steinard said, “There is so much love in the ICN. I love being a part of it.”
Anthony added, “I cherish each one. When you cuddle them for the last time, it’s emotional.”