Alaska’s largest hospital has been enforcing visitor restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
That means, starting almost a year ago, the 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 help fill the need.
It’s a Saturday evening, and Nathan Johnson is trying to soothe a tiny baby girl at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage.
“Oh, sweetpea, what’s going on?” he coos, as she wails. “You’ll be okay.”
They’re in the newborn 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,” said Johnson. “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 watched when she was taken off oxygen. He’s watched her vital signs improve. He’s watched her grow.
But Johnson isn’t the baby’s dad, or even a relative: He works in administration at Providence. But he’s among a group of hospital employees who come in before or after work, or at lunch, or on the weekends, to hold some of Alaska’s tiniest and sickest babies.
“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.”
Normally, a group of volunteer Alaskans called the Cuddle Corps dedicate hundreds of hours a month to holding the NICU babies, not Provide staff.
But, like so many things, the coronavirus barred the baby-holding volunteers from entry starting last spring.
So Providence looked internally. About 10 employees, including Johnson, stepped up to the 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 read all the science, you know that that baby’s brain is developing, just 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 around.
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 hometowns. 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.
Nurses, she said, are happy to see them, too. 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 says 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.”
She likes to sing or talk to the baby she’s holding during her time in the NICU, Clark said.
Johnson said he’s even attended meetings by phone with a baby on his chest.
Sometimes, he’ll sit in silence, while the baby sleeps.
But most often, Johnson said, he just rambles on about all the baby will be able to see once they leave the hospital, often thinking of his 8-year-old son as he talks.
“It’s super exciting out here,” he tells one infant. “You could play with puppies, run in the snow, do all kinds of stuff.”