Hospital taking volunteer snugglers for preemies, babies with opioid addiction

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Volunteers at a Detroit area hospital are making a big difference for the most vulnerable patients.

A new program at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn is helping babies born addicted to opioids get through their withdrawal symptoms with cuddles. Nurses help keep the babies alive, but these volunteer cuddlers are able to take the time to sing to and rock the babies to help calm them down. 

These volunteers also spend time with babies born prematurely, like 1-day old Landon who met Sue Mendrysa while we were there. 

"Look at his tiny head," said Mendrysa. "So handsome."

Born premature at 32 weeks, Landon weighs in at 4 pounds and 2 ounces. He was one of the first babies to receive some cuddles from the new program.

"They are always so busy, so all I have to do is say, 'I'm here, give me one,'" Mendrysa says. 

Mendrysa says she used to work at Detroit Children's Hospital and when she retired, she began to miss the kids. Her neighbor told her about Beaumont's program.

"I'm like, well I can come spread some love here," she said. "I'm pretty excited about it."

Premature babies like Landon can always use some extra swaddling and singing. But Dr. Derek Bair, whose daughter Emily Bair brought the program there, says babies born addicted to opioids need human interaction even more.

Those babies experience withdrawal symptoms between 48 to 72 hours after birth, like tremors, hyperactive reflexes, seizures, excessive crying and irritability. Babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS, is up 383 percent from 2000 to 2012.

"Every baby when it's in the womb is under pressure," said Dr. Bair. "And it is contained and confined and that gives them a safe and secure feeling. Even babies that are not involved in drug withdrawal, or born premature, still like that confinement and containment."

Bair says they started with two cuddlers, but the program is growing every day. Interested volunteers first receive a background check, some training and an evaluation. The shifts are no longer than four hours. And for Mendrysa it is, of course, relaxing for them and for her.

"It's always nice too, if you have a little one that is a little upset to console them and comfort them," she said.

And for anyone thinking about being a cuddler?

"I'd say go (for it),” Mendrysa said. "Definitely go for it."