Volunteer baby cuddlers bring comfort to NICU preemies and their families

GREEN BAY, Wis. - Four-month-old Remy Werner is a miracle baby.

"It's been a long road," his mom said with tears in her eyes.

Tracy was only 28 weeks pregnant when a blood clot in her placenta and other complications forced her to deliver her baby boy three months early. He weighed just over two pounds at birth. 

"I mean it's scary. You see him all hooked up to all this machinery and it's helping breathe for them, because they can't do it on their own."
 
But Tracy's little guy is a fighter, and so is his support team in the neonatal intensive care unit at Aurora BayCare Medical Center in Green Bay. From knowledgeable nurses to dedicated volunteers like Mike Beno who serves as a baby cuddler, the infants are in good hands. 

"To be able to give back that way, I just thought it was a perfect fit," explained Beno.

Grandpa Mike, as they affectionately call him in the NICU, is a retired Ashwaubenon School District employee who donates eight hours a week to rock and soothe preemies.

"When I'm against their skin, when I'm holding their little hand, something is passing from me to them. Something is moving through there that is helping them be stronger, helping give them strength."  

NICU Supervisor Sara Presteen agrees."It's essential for infants to have human touch and be talked to. That really helps with their brain development and their growth overall."

The volunteer cuddlers also ease the worries of parents. As days turned to weeks in the NICU, the Werners had to split up the family. Tracy stayed at the hospital with Remy, while Jason returned to their home in Oshkosh to care for the couple's other son, as well as return to work to pay the bills. Knowing that Beno and other volunteers were filling the gap, brought comfort to them during a trying time.

"It really takes a lot off my mind wondering if he's doing ok," said Jason.

"Just to know that there's people like him that come in and donate their time, it's really incredible," Tracy added.

With four to seven nurses per shift caring for a dozen babies on average, the extra sets of hands are invaluable.

"They are amazing. Every single one of them," Presteen said.

Beno, who's the unit's only male baby cuddler, is happy to be able to provide that extra TLC.

"It's been fun. I love it. We go away for a couple months during the winter, and I miss my babies. I really do," he chuckled.

So you can imagine how bittersweet it is when his tiny bundles grow big and healthy enough to leave the hospital. Remy is now 10 pounds.

"I will miss him. Oh, I have bonds with all of them."

After a parting embrace, Tracy and Remy said goodbye to the NICU staff last week who became more like family during their stay.

"It's really a good feeling that we're finally going to get to go home."

After four months, Remy and his big brother finally got to meet. It's these rewarding moments that inspire Grandpa Mike to keep coming back to care for sick babies.

"It's so fulfilling. It gives you back that reason for getting up in the morning and feeling like you're part of society, and I have a purpose in my life."

If you'd like to volunteer as a baby cuddler, Aurora BayCare Medical Center is looking to fill shifts during the overnight hours and on weekends. Volunteers must pass a background check.They also receive training from NICU staff on proper holding and soothing techniques for preemies with special medical conditions and for babies going through drug withdrawals.

Click here for more information. 

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