Pam Unkel recently endured the jab of a measles, mumps and rubella shot and two doses of the Hepatitis B vaccine with the hope of becoming a volunteer for UnityPoint Health - St. Luke's Cuddler Program.
"I'm just excited. I can hardly wait to hold a baby," said the Jackson, Neb., woman who has dreamed about spending her retired days holding tiny infants at the hospital for years.
St. Luke's announced the new volunteer program Monday during a news conference. Trained adults will hold the hospital's smallest patients or sit near their incubators while singing lullabies and reading stories.
"It's often hard for parents to be here 24-7," said Cindy Running, nurse manager of St. Luke's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. "This is a program intended to give that patient a little more one on one time as an extension of the nurse and giving them a chance to be cuddled at the bedside by a specially trained volunteer."
Unkel, who works in the mail room at Allied Solutions, has a couple of years to go before retirement, but upon hearing about the program from a NICU nurse at her granddaughter's gymnastics class, she couldn't resist signing up.
Unkel fondly recalls the retired women who rocked infants at a Sioux Falls, S.D., hospital where her grandson, now 18, was born. He weighed just over two pounds. Her 7-year-old granddaughter also spent some time in St. Luke's NICU.
"I thought, 'I want to do that when I retire,'" she said.
Diane Wheeler, manager of volunteer services for St. Luke's, said the requirements for being a baby cuddler go far beyond having a pair of loving arms.
Would-be volunteers must present proof of immunization and submit to a criminal background check before they can begin training.
"Not everybody can walk in off of the street and do this," Wheeler said. "You're going to have to be fairly confident in your abilities because you're handling a tiny, fragile infant. But it's going to be incredibly rewarding for those who are determined to go through all of the health requirements and the training."
Volunteers who pass the initial screenings, attend a session where they learn about developmental care. They also take a tour of the NICU. Then they attend a one-on-one, hands-on lesson with occupational and speech-language therapists.
"We talk to them about positioning," said speech-language pathologist Megan Gubbels. "We want that flexed posture to promote self-soothing with the arms and the legs."
Erin Thomas, of Sioux City, donned a salmon pink smock as she sat in a rocking chair holding Julie Rodriguez.
The newborn, whose eyes remained closed, didn't make a sound when Gubbels took her from Thomas and then gently set her in volunteer Krista Namminga's arms.
A nurse always removes the baby from the crib or isolette and places him or her into the volunteer's arms. If volunteers need any assistance, staff is just a push of a button away.
"We don't want them messing with the lines or the tubes. We want to be very careful," physical therapist Mindy Isaacson explained.
Namminga, a sophomore pre-med student at Creighton University, said she thought the program would be a great way to experience what working in a hospital is like and learning about a field that she doesn't know a lot about.
"It seems like they're so fragile," Namminga, of Sioux City, said. "You don't want to break them."
Thomas, who recently graduated from Western Iowa Tech Community College with a practical nursing diploma and hopes to eventually become a registered nurse, said her interest in labor and delivery was sparked during a high school internship in the NICU.
"I decided that's where I wanted to be," she said. "When this program opened up, I saw it as an opportunity to excel in nursing and help out in the community."