Oklahoma City Cuddlers provide emotional support to sick babies at OU Children's Hospital

Hank Kuhlman is the only man currently serving as a volunteer cuddler at OU Children’s Hospital. The Cuddlers program brings members of the community into the hospital to provide socialization and hands on caring cuddles for babies in the NICU.
by Heather Warlick Modified: June 15, 2014 at 10:00 pm •  Published: June 16, 2014
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photo - Hank Kuhlman, 67 of Oklahoma City, cuddles with 100 day old baby Bentley Hammond at The Children's Hospital at OU Medical Center in the NICU on June 11, 2014. Kuhlman volunteers for hours each week to give premature babies human contact. Photo by KT King/The Oklahoman
Hank Kuhlman, 67 of Oklahoma City, cuddles with 100 day old baby Bentley Hammond at The Children's Hospital at OU Medical Center in the NICU on June 11, 2014. Kuhlman volunteers for hours each week to give premature babies human contact. Photo by KT King/The Oklahoman

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.


by Heather Warlick
Life & Style Editor
Since graduating from University of Central Oklahoma with a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism, Staff Writer Heather Warlick has written stories for The Oklahoman's Life section. Her beats have included science, health, home and garden, family,...
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