Home Stretch

I didn’t want to go to the NICU tonight. My dad was admitted to a Luling hospital today. He has cancer, hasn’t been eating, and today he couldn’t walk.

But my sister insisted that he was well cared for in Luling, so I dragged my depressed ass into the NICU for my volunteer shift. I didn’t know if I’d be comforting babies tonight or if they’d be comforting me.

As I entered one of the bays, I heard an irritable grunt coming from the middle of a row.

“She just had surgery yesterday,” the nurse said of Baby S. “You can’t hold her, but she loves it when people talk to her. Just make sure she doesn’t touch the incision.”

“No problem,” I said, pulling on a pair of purple latex gloves.

Baby S’s upper body was tightly wrapped in a blanket to prevent contact with the incision area. She couldn’t move her arms; she was miserable.

“If I were strapped down in this straight jacket contraption, I’d be irritable too.”

Baby S would settle for about four to five minutes, then return to her grumpy demeanor.

“I know you don’t feel good right now, but this surgery will be good for you. You’re going to get to go home soon. You’re in the home stretch.”

She grew fussy.

” ‘Home stretch’ means that you’re going to get to your destination soon. It means that after a long, hard journey, you can see the finish line where all your family is waiting for you.”

She sucked hard on her binky.

Next, I began singing and humming made-up tunes. She wasn’t having it.

“Well, obviously my songs aren’t working. You look like an old soul. What would you like to hear that you liked in your prior life?”

Immediately Mustang Sally popped into my head. Hadn’t thought of that tune in a good 20 years.

“Really?” I said to Baby S. “I wouldn’t have picked you for that one.”

There I was, dancing while singing “Mustang Sally.”

And suddenly Baby S settled.

“Well how cool is that,” her nurse said. “She gets her own entertainment system.”

“She likes Mustang Sally!” I cheered.

“That’s my dad’s favorite song!” she said.

Of course it is, I thought. This is the kind of fantastically eerie serendipity that happens in the NICU.

After two hours of conversations about her impending release and singing and dancing from her bedside, I began massaging Baby S’s head. And that was the tipping point. She was finally asleep.

I left Baby S with a good luck wish, then popped into the staff lounge to check my phone.

No messages from my sister about Daddy. Amid relief and sadness, I felt calm. Like Baby S, Daddy is heading toward his home stretch– the final mile of a long, hard life. Soon he’ll get to see his wife (my stepmother) again. He loved her so much and has never gotten over her death.

Daddy’s new home is within sight. He’s almost there.

Though my sisters and I will be sad when he passes, I’m already comforted by the thought that he’s in the home stretch.

Like Baby S, he’ll be home soon.

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The Reputation

A nurse in Bay 5 flagged me down the second I crossed the threshold of the NICU.

“You can rock her!” she said in a slightly desperate tone.

It was obvious: The nurse was tired from a long day of Baby G’s cries of irritability. The baby was in a corner of the room so as not to disturb other patients.

Baby G already had “The Reputation.”

She was anxious, angry, fearful–literally worried stiff. She braced for something awful coming, even though no one else sensed any doom.

I sat in a rocking chair and cuddled her firmly.

She cried and kicked her feet out of the blanket in protest.

I switched my hold from left arm to right.

She cried.

I lifted her forward to my left chest.

She cried.

I switched to the right shoulder, and suddenly the cries became whimpers.

I saw an advice opening so I took it.

“What’s going on, Baby Girl? Why are you so worried and anxious? You’re using up a lot of energy your body needs to heal.”

Baby G quieted. Her breathing changed. She was settling.

“Would it make you feel better if I assigned you an Angel Advocate? Someone who can give the doctors little hints about what’s going on with you?”

She released a deep sigh.

“Well, alrighty then. I’ll take that as a yes. Consider it done.”

Baby G slept for an hour, and then it was time for the nurse to bathe and feed her.

I drifted from bay to bay and bed to bed looking for another rocking candidate, but each bay was quiet.

After more roaming and chatting for a bit with a NICU parent, I returned to the bay in which my night began. Shift change brought new nurses on board. But in that same corner, away from the other babies, the replacement nurse gave me another panicked wave from the baby with “The Reputation.”

“You can rock her!” the nurse said in a now-familiar desperate tone.

I threaded my fingers around Baby G’s neck and rump and pulled her to my chest. While humming “Love Me Tender,” I could feel her begin to melt into relaxation.

The nurse was feeding a patient at a nearby bed.

“She really likes you,” she said with a smile. “She doesn’t relax like that for everyone. She’s kinda got a reputation for being anxious all the time.

“This is so nice to see.”

“Glad I could help,” I said with serene satisfaction.

New souls

Not much rocking tonight. I spent most of my time comforting little ones from their bedside. Most were too sick to hold.

At the beginning of my shift, I got to follow a nurse and father as they wheeled a newborn baby fresh from the womb into the NICU. The little one’s head was still coated in white film.

It’s amazing how one moment a baby is in a momma’s belly, and the next… I’M HERE! I wonder if this sense of wonder ever leaves doctors and nurses.

The two babies I rocked tonight were new souls. This may sound real woo-woo, but I think the difference between new souls and old is pretty obvious in the NICU.

Old souls are chilled. Nothing phases them. They look around the hospital unit as if they remember it, as if to say, “Yeah, this is all coming back to me now. I’ve done this before. Zzzzzzzz…”

Meanwhile, new souls have a terrified, wide-eyed look on their faces. Every little noise and shadow startles them.

They question everything:

“What was that?!”

“That was a nurse getting something out of a drawer,” I say. “It’s okay. Go back to sleep.”

“What was that?!”

“That’s an alarm that tells the nurse that the baby over there is forgetting to breathe. Don’t worry. That baby’s fine.”

“What was that?!”

“Dude, that’s all on you. You farted.”

I give the same speech to all the new souls:

“We’re so glad you came to live with us! Not everything is as scary as it is right now. You’ll get the hang of it. And then you’ll have a great adventure. I think you’re going to like it here.”

By this time, they’re asleep.

As I leave for the night, I wonder how long after birth that babies remember why they came here — and what they’re supposed to accomplish.

I wish I could remember my mission. And then in the quiet of the morning, sometimes I recall bits and pieces, and my life makes sense.

I love baby rocking.

Play Time

Tonight was sooooo much fun. There’s a not-so-little-anymore boy there. He’s a long-term patient who now needs more interaction and stimulation.

So I played with him for an hour.

He is learning to lift his head, and he wobbled left, right, forward, and backward in his play walker. And he smiled. And he talked–about what? I have no clue. He made raspberry bubbles and grinned and giggled when I made raspberries in response.

His favorite thing in the walker is a penguin that spreads its wings and honks every time you press its head down.

Soon enough, he became tired, so I lifted him up out of his walker and cradled him in my arms. He was fidgety and irritable. I figured he was just tired. Then I heard a liquidy rumble erupt from his diaper:

“Ppppfffffff…ffff…ff.”

Right after that epic fart, he fell asleep.

As I watched this sweet little boy dream, I couldn’t believe I get to do this every week– that the hospital trusts me with other people’s babies. That the nurses don’t mind that I sing to the babies poorly and oftentimes out of tune. That I ask them whether they’re an old soul or a new soul.

And that’s when I realized I have–hands down–the best volunteer gig ever.

What a blessing.

Baby Rockin’ 101

Previously published: June 29, 2017

Every week, someone spouts an excited variance of, “I didn’t know you could volunteer to rock babies. Didn’t even know that was a thing. Can I do it?”

Why, yes, you can, and in a minute, I’ll tell you how. But first, I want to tell you why.

Marvel Lanagan was my wife’s friend, and so she was mine too. Marvel and I bonded over giggles and a deep love of other people’s babies. Neither of us had children, yet both of us loved them.

Marvel volunteered once a week in the nursery of St. David’s Medical Center in Austin, and she would share stories of how wonderful it was to rock babies.

“Oh, I didn’t know you could volunteer to rock babies. Didn’t even know that was a thing. I want to do that!” I often said.

“You should,” she often replied with a wide smile. “You’d be good at it.”

I never did.

One day at work, Marvel, at age 45, collapsed in her cubicle. Her heart suddenly stopped. A coworker found her, EMS was called, and she was resuscitated, but she’d been without oxygen too long.

Marvel died nine days after doctors removed all life support.

I remember grieving deeply. I remember not wanting to train for an upcoming triathlon. I remember crying at work. And I thought of the babies. Who’ll rock the babies now? I couldn’t do it.

Years later, after much introspection via a 12-week program called The Artist’s Way, I wrote down a bunch of bucket list items. “Baby rocking” was high on the list. So I began researching how to make that happen. Here’s what I did:

1. Choose a hospital.

I knew St. David’s had a baby rocking program, and there was a hospital 10 minutes away from my home. So I searched the hospital’s website and clicked on its Volunteering page. Turns out there’s A LOT of ways to volunteer. I had no idea. St. David’s has Community, College, and Teen Summer volunteer programs.

2. Choose a program.

Don’t let your eyes glaze over when you click on Volunteer Opportunities. At St. David’s, a person can volunteer for everything from the gift shop and information desk to the emergency room. You must be at least 25 years old to volunteer as a NICU rocker, but check out the official job description: “Provides compassionate nurture to NICU infants by rocking and holding eligible patients.” Sweet!

3. Apply online.

St. David’s has an easy, year-round online application process. Very convenient.

4. Interview.

After I filed my online application, a Volunteer Services staff member sent me an e-mail to set up an interview. I sat in a small office with two women who asked me all kinds of questions. I knew they were trying to gauge whether I was a baby stalker nut. (I’m glad they realized I wasn’t.) It was a great conversation. We talked about the typical interview topics (“What’s your greatest strength/weakness?”) and then they got to the point: “Why do you want to rock babies?”

I told them about Marvel.

5. Undergo a drug screening and thorough background check.

Wouldn’t you want to know that the person rocking your baby isn’t a baby rocker stalker nut? Me too. So St. David’s takes a while to do a diligent screening, including carefully checking all character references. I had no problem waiting. It actually made me feel good that the hospital went to such great lengths to ensure that all volunteers are the people they say they are, and that their patients are safe.

6. Attend volunteer orientation.

The next month, I attended the all-hospital volunteer orientation held in the evening in a large conference room at the hospital. I got a free sandwich and LOTS of interesting information. I learned about facility policies and procedures, HIPPA patient confidentiality rules, and that Code Adam means someone is trying to run off with a baby and that I should immediately guard the nearest exit. (The black belt in me knew I could do this without a problem. Come at me, bro’!)

At the end of orientation, we took a test and then signed final documents in a thick agreement packet.

7. Get your flu shot, and prove that all your immunizations are up to date.

I couldn’t find my childhood immunization records. Could you? No worries. There’s now a cool blood test that can detect whether you have the chicken pox, measles, and mumps immunizations in your system. Ah, the wonders of science! (FYI: The flu shot is non-negotiable. You either get it or you don’t volunteer. St. David’s is serious about not spreading viruses and infections.)

8. Pick a day and time to volunteer.

In the NICU, volunteers are required to commit to a year of service for at least three hours a week. I’ve been rocking babies every Wednesday night, 6 p.m.-9 p.m., for almost two years and have no plans to stop any time soon.

9. Attend a training session in your department.

On a Friday afternoon in early December 2015, I started my journey by learning the importance of scrubbing thoroughly before entering the unit (protocol calls for washing your hands for 20 seconds; that’s equal to singing Happy Birthday twice). St. David’s is serious about halting the introduction and spread of infection. They even have little plastic filers to help scoop out dirt under your fingernails.

Next to washing my hands, the other important thing to remember was to always pull on surgical gloves before touching a baby. After that, I got coached on how to cradle a baby’s head to ensure good airflow and how to maneuver around wire connections. In no time the nurse trainer asked if I was ready to hold one. I suddenly got scared. (My mind was screaming, “Don’t break the baby! Don’t break the baby!”) I gulped, sat in a rocking chair, and she handed me my first patient. Rocking that baby was such a blast. I was so proud of myself!

My trainer was so nice, and she gave me small yet important tips such as, “Some premature babies have imbalance issues, so don’t rock so fast.”

My great nephew, Landon, was born in Corpus Christi that same Friday. He had fluid in his lungs, so he spent some time in the NICU.  My niece was frantic. But I learned that Friday that some babies go to the NICU for this kind of stuff all the time. It’s common and temporary. Their lungs just need a little help learning how to breathe on their own. My niece was relieved when I told her that she didn’t have to be afraid. All those tubes and wires connected to her little boy were for good reason, and everything would be alright.

10. Rock on!

I hope this blog post helped answer some basic questions about volunteering as a baby rocker in your area. If your local hospital doesn’t have a rocker program, show them this blog post and ask to start one!

If you have any other questions, leave a comment below, or check out your local hospital’s website under Volunteer Opportunities.

Happy Rockin’!

Future Teacher of America

Editor’s note: The name in this post has been changed.

The moment I stepped up to the NICU sink to wash in, a nurse approached.

“Our usual culprits are in Bays 7, 3, and 5,” she said.

“Okay,” I replied. “I’ll put them in rocking jail.”

The nurses’ station erupted in laughter. “Oh, that’s perfect!” one nurse said.

I really didn’t think it was that funny.
—-
Tonight I rocked four little ones. One stood out:

“You talk a lot,” I told Baby A as I held my first “culprit.” He grunted, cooed, and whimpered, then grunted again. What a yacker!

“Yeah, he’s a talker,” his nurse said.

I watched his tiny mouth make Os and then purse his lips together.

“What are you going to be when you grow up?” I asked. “There are a lot of careers in which you can talk a lot: radio talk show host, inspirational speaker, tour guide, actor, language interpreter.”

He stared at me, deadpan. None of that interested him.

Then I looked at his name. It was a long one, with hyphenation and lots of letters.

“Oh! That’s it! You could be a teacher! I can hear the students now saying, ‘You think you have a lot of homework? I’m in Mr. Rodriguez-Villalpando’s algebra class. He never gives us a break. But he’s a great teacher.’

“I think you’d make a good teacher. You’ll make such an impact on so many lives. Your students will remember you for years. I STILL remember my teachers.”

The little boy listened. His eyes began to droop. He stopped talking.

“Oh, hey before you go to sleep,” I added, “you should really think about graduate school. I think Dr. Rodriguez-Villalpando sounds awesome.”

The monitors told me what I suspected: He was asleep.

It’s not your fault

One of the three babies I rocked tonight had been grumpy for the past 24 hours. He just wouldn’t settle down.

Nurses fed him. He cried.
Nurses changed his diaper. He cried.
Nurses turned on the music box to play soothing tunes. He cried.
Nurses put him in his favorite swing. He cried.

So I come bopping along, figuring I have my work cut out for me tonight.

I get him settled in my arms, and suddenly I feel him talking to me. He’s not ready to go home. He’s afraid to leave the hospital–much like he was afraid to leave his mother’s womb.

“It’s not your fault that you left your mom’s womb,” I told him. “I know this is all scary and brand new, but you weren’t supposed to stay in her womb. All babies leave. You did what you were supposed to do. And you did great!”

He wiggled his nose and sucked on his binky, just listening. It was only then that I realized that at some point, he’d stopped crying.

“I know you’re afraid to go home,” I continued, “but you’re gonna love it there. Everyone who loves you is at home waiting for you, waiting to help you heal the rest of the way. And you’re not going to have to leave that place until you go to college or get married!”

He smiled. (But I think he had gas, because soon afterward, he tooted.)

I pulled the baby up to my chest and began patting him gently on the rump while humming a random tune.

It’s funny that he was so worry about not being ready. I wonder how many others think that they did it wrong when they were born.

Soon I heard his breathing change. He was now in full-on nasally baby breathing mode! The monitor showed him in deep sleep–and I did an internal happy dance.