Hank Kuhlman is a cuddler. Every Wednesday for the past seven years, the 67-year-old Vietnam veteran gets up at the crack of dawn and heads to OU Children’s Hospital for his shift cuddling the tiny babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
He gets his “baby fix.” In fact, he said, he has to be sick to miss a shift.
“I will dig myself out of a snow drift to be here.”
That’s because these babies need him. The babies in the NICU are there for many drastic health needs and often, their parents simply can’t be at the hospital all day to be with the babies.
Kuhlman has his own child — a lieutenant colonel and test pilot in the U.S. Air Force. Kuhlman’s daughter-in-law was a major in the Air Force before she became an instructor of English and composition at Oklahoma City Community College.
He knows that if and when he becomes a real grandfather, that grandchild will be the center of his universe and showered with the spoils of Kuhlman’s disposable income.
Until then, Kuhlman has acted as a stand-in for fathers and grandfathers to hundreds of babies in need.
“It’s kind of amazing because all the men I know tell me they could never do something like this,” he said.
He recalls the last man to be part of the Cuddler team at Children’s — Clyde Lowry.
“He’d talk to that baby nonstop. He was amazing,” Kuhlman said.
Meeting emotional needs
OU Children’s Hospital’s Cuddlers program has 39 well-trained and screened volunteers. Kuhlman is the only man in the program. More men are wanted to participate. Volunteers especially are needed for evenings and weekends, but must go through the rigorous screening process before beginning.
On this particular day, the baby boy Kulhman cuddles is Bentley Hammond, who was born on March 3 at 3 pounds, 13.6 ounces, with a birth defect called Omphalocele.
Evident in ultrasounds before his birth, Omphalocele is caused by the lack of an abdominal wall muscle, and often even the skin covering the abdomen.
After Bentley was born, he underwent surgery, like a tummy tuck, in which surgeons pulled the skin from above and below his Omphalocele to cover the area.
Bentley’s prognosis is good, but his parents live in Elk City and can only come to spend the weekends with their tiny baby.
That’s where cuddlers step in. They provide the human contact babies desperately need.
“It is so important that they be socialized,” Kuhlman said.
“We get DHS babies, drug babies, post-op, pre-op, chronically ill, just abandoned. And we socialize them. It’s very important to their mental development that they be socialized.”
A soft spot in his heart
Kuhlman’s ID tag has a photo of him looking quite stern, as you might imagine he looked during his two military stints in Vietnam. In the photo, he looks pretty tough.
But sitting with baby Bentley snug in his strong arms, Kuhlman looks less like a hardened veteran and more like a peaceful father or grandfather.
The lighting is dim and Kulhman sits in a cushioned chair with little Bentley snuggled close to his chest.
Bentley is the third baby Kuhlman has worked with this morning.
Earlier, he spent 30 minutes with one of his favorite little boys. This baby is too tiny for traditional cuddling, so Kuhlman uses hand swaddling to comfort him.
“I put my hand on their head and my hand on their feet or their stomach to keep them calm,” he said.
The 30-minute hand swaddling limit is because doctors and nurses don’t want to leave the isolettes (incubators for fragile, undersize babies) open for longer than that.
Cuddlers are cherished by NICU registered nurses such as Joann Stina, who is in charge of Bentley.
For example, she said, when she is performing a procedure on a baby such as Bentley, the baby usually will resist.
Cuddlers will help by tucking the baby into a fetal position to make it more comfortable.
“When a baby flails, it’s stress and we don’t want any of that,” Stina said. “If they’re flailing, they’re all stressed out, they’re burning oxygen and burning calories.”
But when the cuddlers tuck them, “They just go limp because that’s their safety, their secure place, like inside Momma,” Stina said.
Hard to let go
Kuhlman says he often makes his wife nervous that he’ll start bringing babies home.
“There was a set of twins, a brother and a sister, and they were in the crib together,” Kuhlman recalls. “They’d never been separated. I would hold one in this arm and one in the other arm and they would grunt and groan to let the other one know they were there.”
The babies were headed to foster care, a fate that ate at Kuhlman.
“I came home and said to my wife, ‘You want to be a mother again? I got a deal for you,’ ” he said.
Babies in the NICU are far more aware than many think, Stina said. If they want attention, they can actually make all the alarms on their isolettes blare.
“They’ll bear down, they’ll hold their breath and their stats will fall, when they get bigger, they grab hold of their leads. It sets off every alarm,” Stina said.
Serving babies, their parents
In a few weeks, Bentley likely will get to go home with his parents, Virginia and Jack Hammond. He’s beginning to act like a healthier 3-month-old, Kuhlman said. Then, Bentley raises his head, opens his eyes and stares at the camera held by a photographer, and smiles up at his cuddler.
It’s clear that even though Bentley can’t say the words, a “thank-you” for Kuhlman’s fatherly emotional support is in his little expression.
And Bentley’s father said he appreciates what Kuhlman and the other volunteers do for the babies they cuddle.
“It’s nice to know that someone is there with him, holding him and making him feel comfortable, when we can’t be there,” Hammond said.
For information about volunteering as a cuddler or as a patient pal to older kids, contact Belinda Anderson, manager of volunteers at Children’s Hospital at 271-4870, ext. 1. Applicants are interviewed, must pass a drug and health screening, an extensive background check and receive about eight hours of training.