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Faith Conversations: 'Cuddling' NICU babies a breath of heaven

Sister Lorraine Schmaltz rocks an eight-week-old baby boy that was born 10 weeks premature Thursday at Sanford Hospital in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO - She’s never seen heaven, but Sister Lorraine Schmaltz feels as though she’s breathed in its scent.

The chance has come through her work as a volunteer at Sanford Health, where she is among a group of volunteers who call themselves “cuddlers.” Their blessed job involves holding and rocking babies biding their time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

“Infants are a new and hopeful being. They’ve just barely come from God’s hands,” Schmaltz says. “To me it’s another image of God; it’s God showing me a different part of his face, since each child is different. I also admire the resilience, the strength, the fight that’s in each of these children. They’re little but they’re strong.”

The precious undertaking requires just a few hours of her time each week, but she can’t imagine a better way to spend it.

She says her fellow sisters back at the Presentation Prayer Center in South Fargo know when she’s on her way to the hospital.

“They chuckle at me. Whenever I come to prayers in my white blouse and dark slacks they say, ‘Oh she’s going to her babies,’ ” Schmaltz says. Later, they often ask, “How many did you have today?” It’s not the number but time that counts, she notes. “I tell them I was able to love babies for two hours, or three hours.”

Each by name

Though the cuddlers’ tasks are fairly simple – they don’t handle the babies other than to receive and rock them – Schmaltz has added a few extras to the job description to better connect with the little ones. She sings them lullabies, calls them by name, and thanks them for the chance to be with them.

“Once you’re holding them for a little bit you get the feeling of what comforts them,” she says.

“For some the singing helps but not for all. I almost always find myself humming.”

She talks to them softly, explaining that though their mommy and daddy are away for a time, they are loved and cared for. “One day I was talking to a little guy and the longer I talked the larger his eyes got and I thought he could see right through me.”

Sometimes she simply admires their beauty. Almost always, her words to the babies include a prayer of some sort – that they’ll always feel loved and safe and have what they need in life to be whole.

“The physical touch is so important; that closeness of being held,” she adds. “Sometimes a little hand comes out and they grasp ahold of you. And then there are the smiles. They say it’s only gas, but they’re smiles as far as I’m concerned.”

Not just babies that benefit

The babies aren’t the only ones who benefit from the cuddlers’ tender mission.

Lori Miller, mother of Henrick – a baby who spent his first couple months in the NICU – lives in Jamestown and couldn’t be at Henrick’s side as often as she would have liked. For this reason, she feels indebted to people like Schmaltz, who filled in the gap of mother-love in her stead.

“I really appreciate the volunteers,” Miller says. “It’s just wonderful knowing your baby is getting lots of love and cuddle time when you can’t be there.”

Trish Strom, nurse manager, says the cuddling program, while not called that at the time, was already in place prior to her arrival at the hospital 27 years ago.

“There’s always been a need for these babies to be touched, certainly because of the rural state we’re in and how far we transport kids in,” she says. “The nurses just can’t always do it when they’re doing the work of the day, so the cuddlers add that component – the comfort and socialization that even at these very premature ages is so important.”

And while cuddling benefits the child, it also helps the nurses and unit as a whole. “When a nurse is trying to attend to a more urgent need but hears a baby crying, that’s very stressful,” she says. “To know someone is going to come in and have some one-on-one time with that baby is very reassuring.”

Currently, there isn’t a need for additional cuddlers. When openings do arise, those who accept the task must go through a training period. “It takes a calm and steady heart to sit with the babies who are upset,” Strom says. “The rockers really understand that and do fulfill that role.”

Strom met Sister Lorraine her first day on the job and says she immediately noticed her natural abilities. “What I say about anyone who works in this unit is that it’s much more a vocation as opposed to an occupation. The nurses have that approach and right away I saw it in her, too. It’s lovely.”

Born for loving babies

Schmaltz says cuddling is something she seems to have been born to do. The foreshadowing came in her own childhood, when the very first word that emerged from her lips was “baby,” referring to a cousin just a few months older.

Prior to her semi-retirement in Fargo, Schmaltz, 72, worked in both education and parish work, most recently in Iowa. Throughout her long career, she has always been drawn to children – members of society she says who don’t always get the respect they deserve.

Aside from the innate, her underlying motivation comes from something she learned from a mentor years ago.

“He said my focus of doing ministry was to make sure everyone I met knew they were loved,” she says. “The gospel is love your neighbor, love God, but we learn that by being loved. Through my parish work with people and all their hurts and pains, I realized that all people need to know is that they’re loved. If we’re loved we can get through anything.”

The nurses often thank her for her cuddling ministry, but Schmaltz says she immediately turns that gratitude around. “I say, ‘Thank you. It’s been my privilege. It’s been a gift to me,’” she explains. “I’m a strong extrovert, and though I like my quiet time, I need to be in touch with the real world, and the real world includes lots of little people.”

When she isn’t cuddling, Schmaltz is usually nurturing something else, including the tomato plants in her garden at the prayer center that she started this year from seed. “Again, it’s that sense of new life, and for me it’s a symbol of a new life happening within me.”

Everything comes back to this, according to Schmaltz.

“Especially around January, as I’m cuddling, I think, you know, this could be Jesus. Jesus was little like this,” she says. “Or this could be the person who finds a cure for a disease or maybe who can bring peace into our world. It’s that potential. And what can I do to bring more love into the world? This is what I do. I hold these babies and I love them.”