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.