Photos by Marissa DePino

A baby girl rests in Kathleen Koeppell’s arms as she coos the words from “I Love You to the Moon and Back.” The room is dimly lit. Outside the door the hallway is quiet, with just a few whispers exchanged between those who must speak. A small bassinet sits in the center of the room, surrounded by medical equipment. Koeppell’s off in the corner, occupying a cushy sofa as she cradles the baby. The pair is sitting in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

From Minnie Mouse to teddy bears, baby toys are strewn out on the couch for the little girl.

The two were brought together through a volunteer program at Mercy Children’s Hospital and Clinics. The program connects NICU babies with a volunteer to provide interaction for the baby when the parents are unable to be at the hospital due to work or other obligations.

Koeppell is a retired early childhood expert who volunteers at the Mercy Children’s Hospital NICU in Des Moines. She’s been volunteering once a week for the past two years.

“[I] often just talk to them and talk to them about what’s in the room and sing some song softly… they’re often just sleeping and so you just want to hold them and let [them know someone is] there,” Koeppell says.

“There’s a lot that goes on at the NICU, and some people aren’t aware of it when they say they want to come in and be with babies.” —Rania Robb

Despite the unofficial “baby cuddler” title, volunteers do more than cuddle infants. According to Rania Robb, the certified child life specialist at Mercy, they also lend a hand by helping with daily tasks.

“They [volunteers] are cleaning laundry, distributing clothes,” Robb says. “They clean and distribute and label quilt donations we get, clean swings, assemble the admission binders that we give to families.”

Becoming a Volunteer

Mercy’s NICU houses a closet filled with baby boy clothes.

Since duties include more than just cuddling with babies, the process of becoming a volunteer  is a bit extensive. It begins with an interview. A similar program at the Truman Medical Centers in Kansas City, Missouri, called the TMC Rockers, has several requirements for potential aids, too.

“You know, when I first started the process it was quite an involved interview type,” says Paula Shultz, a volunteer rocker at the Truman Medical Centers. “I had to go do blood tests and eye tests and hearing tests, just like a regular employee of Truman Medical Centers, which I appreciate because [the family is] entrusting their baby to a total stranger.”

There is limited interaction between participants and parents, if any, in the NICU, so training volunteers is an essential component of the program.

“[I] often just talk to them and talk to them about what’s in the room and sing some song softly… they’re often just sleeping and so you just want to hold them and let [them know someone is] there.” —Kathleen Koeppell

Each NICU volunteer program trains their aids in a slightly different way. Mercy has a two-step process to familiarize and prepare participants for the NICU. Step one is ‘patient and unit support.’ Robb calls this the trial period.

“There’s a lot that goes on at the NICU, and some people aren’t aware of it when they say they want to come in and be with babies,” Robb says. “We don’t have Gerber babies. And so the idea of seeing babies with some of the tubes or hearing the alarms, some aren’t comfortable. So after that trial period they are like ‘I’m good in this spot,’ or some will just say it’s not a good fit, and then they can choose to go into a different area.”

Rocking in the NICU

Quilts are donated to the NICU and arranged by volunteers.

The purpose of this first step is to prepare volunteers for the NICU and the environment they will be working in for two to three months, so when step two comes along—which entails actual interaction with the babies—they will be ready. An important part of the training is learning to read the babies.

 “It’s reassuring to parents to know that maybe if they aren’t able to be there right on time, it’s kind of an indirect support to parents.” —Kathleen Koeppell

“They are trained to read babies’ stress signals,” Robb says.  “So if a baby “says” ‘I can only take two minutes of this,’ they’re trained to know when to stop …They are able to adjust their interactions to the babies’ needs. And we want to make sure that we are providing just enough stimulation at the right time for the baby.”

Each baby is in the NICU for a different reason, and so is each volunteer. Koeppell came to the program after hearing about it on the on the news. She had pictured herself helping out with babies after her retirement.

“Well the benefits to the babies are just hundredfold, to have another person in their life even for a very short time is something that you can give to their life, to their development,” Koeppell says. “It’s kind of an indirect support to parents.” While there’s no doubt it’s hard having a child in the NICU, Koeppell hopes parents feel assured knowing that their babies are being nurtured, even if they can’t be there every second of the day.