'Jimmy's Friends' Care for NICU Babies One Cuddle at a Time
While some babies are born too small to leave the neonatal intensive care unit, others are faced with different challenges like neonatal abstinence syndrome. That means they were exposed to drugs before they were born, and as a result they experience withdrawals.
Volunteer efforts like Jimmy’s Friends at Saint Francis Medical Center are working to keep babies that stay in the NICU from spending all that time by themselves. Brooke Hildebrand Clubbs is an instructor and the director of health communication for the department of communication studies at Southeast Missouri State University and the person behind ‘Jimmy’s Friends.’ Hildebrand Clubbs spoke with KRCU’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson about the program and why it’s significant for rural areas.
On the backstory of Jimmy's Friends
It was my capstone project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when I was getting my Master’s [in] Science and Health Communication in 2013. The name for it sprang from the fact that my dad, Jim Hildebrand, he was called 'Jimmy' when he was a little boy [and] had asthma--childhood asthma. And he spent a lot of time in the hospital. That was back in the days when they put you in an oxygen tent and you were very isolated. Both of his parents had to work. And so, he spent the day all by himself. I found that even though asthma treatment has improved quite a bit since my dad was a little boy, [the] idea that kids spend time by themselves in the hospital when their parents can't be there that's not something that has changed. We still have a lot of kids if their parents can't be there they're by themselves. So, I was looking into how volunteers could fill that gap....The Missouri Foundation for Health happened to have mini grants available. So I thought well as long as I've got all my research and all of my literature review let's see if I can get this grant. And I did. So I contacted both SoutheastHEALTH and Saint Francis Medical Center. Saint Francis Medical Center took me up on it, because of their level 3 NICU, and they really saw the need for it. And so, that was how we got the program going.
On why this program is significant in rural areas
A lot of times we see these little ads on Facebook or it will be a human interest story. One that recently went around was the ‘NICU Grandpa.’ And people think, 'oh there must be cuddler programs in every hospital.' But if you'll notice all of the hospitals that are featured in those are usually in metropolitan areas. NICU Grandpa is in Atlanta. Some of the other ones you've seen have been in Chicago or hospitals in California. They have the staff. They have the manpower and their volunteer programs have someone to organize these types of volunteers. And Saint Francis up until then had had people call up sometimes and say 'hey, I'd like to come hold babies.' But they're like we can't just let folks in here. This is an intensive care unit. Even though they are babies they're critically ill. But they were busy nursing and doctoring and providing therapy. They didn't have time to develop a program. And that's the case at a lot rural hospitals. They just don't have the administrative support to create a program like this.
On the expectations for volunteers
We have a pretty strict protocol for our volunteers in terms of their training, background checks, TB test, blood titers, flu shots. We certified and bonafide all of our volunteers. And then they make a commitment that they will be there at a certain time each week. They have to commit to at least two hours a week so that the nurses can plan on them being there. So to develop a program like that, to organize it, to keep track of all the volunteers is not something that a lot of rural hospitals have the resources to do.
On the types of babies they interact with
About 10 percent of the babies that are in the NICU have neonatal abstinence syndrome, which means that they are withdrawing from some type of substance. Often we're not sure what it is. It could be meth. It could be alcohol. It could be cocaine. A lot of times it's kind of a guessing game as for what drug it was. And so, they're in a weaning process of getting off [the substance]. They're given morphine as they're going through this process to try to make it as humane as possible, but they're still very irritable. These are probably the babies that we most frequently get called upon to hold in the NICU, because they cry a lot. They're going through withdrawal. And so, they're very fussy.
We have these premature babies that when we start off with them we sit outside their isolette and just talk to them. And then gradually we can put our hand on them. And then it's a big day when we can finally take them out of that isolette and hold them. But we don't make any sudden moves, because their little nervous systems are so underdeveloped. With these neonatal abstinence syndrome babies, we are rocking and shushing and bouncing. There's all kinds of movement going on with these babies. So we kind of have the two extremes from our little tiny guys that can hardly have any stimulation, to our neonatal abstinence syndrome patients who need all kinds of stimulation. Occasionally we also have other babies that are just having difficulty transitioning. They might have respiratory issues. They might have something that eventually they're going to need surgery for-- a cardiac kind of issue. They usually will be headed up to St. Louis for that. Or sometimes we get them when they're transitioning down from St. Louis. They'll come to Saint Francis.
On where the parents are
Cape Girardeau is sort of the hub between Memphis and St. Louis, and so we've got people from all these surrounding counties that come. Sometimes folks have to go back to work. They are not in a position to have a maternity leave, especially a leave that's going to be longer because of having a baby that's in the NICU. We've got [parents] that have other small children and they have issues with childcare. We've got some folks that just have issues with transportation. They don't have a reliable vehicle to get up to Cape Girardeau and back. So there's a lot of parents who would love nothing more than to be at the NICU all of the time, but they have work, or they have other kids, or they have transportation issues. They have their own illnesses to deal with sometimes and so they're not able to be there. Now of course we do have some parents who are not allowed to be there. DCFS has already stepped in in some of those instances. And then occasionally we have parents that it's very stressful to be in this situation. And some of them can't handle that, particularly our younger mothers sometimes. And so, they'll disappear for a little bit. And they won't visit.
Interested in volunteering with Jimmy's Friends?
Contact Brooke Hildebrand Clubbs at firstname.lastname@example.org
Brooke Hildebrand Clubbs is the host of KRCU's To Your Health.