BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — When Debra Nelson had her first child, she encountered a woman caring for babies at the hospital; Little did she know she would step into a similar role decades later.
Nelson had her firstborn at Carraway Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. While she was there, she said there was “a grandma” who would take care of and rock the babies when they were apart from their mothers in the nursery.
“I think I may have been around 21, 22 at the time, and I think that just stayed in my mind,” Nelson said.
For Nelson, her love of babies has always been a constant.
“I love babies, even at church and everything,” she said. “When people were in the choir and all of that and the babies were crying, I would hold the babies and take care of the babies. The babies were asleep by the time (the parents) got the baby back.”
After 38 years at the company she worked for, Nelson said it was time for retirement and she was trying to figure out what she wanted to do to fill her time.
“I guess my mind went back to the babies,” Nelson said. “I was in customer service for 38 years. I’ve been retired for six years now. But I said, ‘I want to go and handle the babies.’”
Nelson said a factor in her decision is that babies don’t talk back, which to her is one of the best parts.
“I don’t want to deal with anyone or anything that was talking back,” Nelson said.
Nelson’s sister, who worked at UAB, heard about UAB’s volunteer cuddler program in the UAB Regional Newborn Intensive Care Unit (RNICU) and Continuing Care Nursery (CCN), and passed the information on to Nelson.
That August, in 2017, Nelson applied and was approved the following month after making sure she was up to date on her shots. The next step after being approved was to go to orientation.
According to UAB, “most infants in the RNICU and CCN are premature and require specialty care. Volunteers undergo training to learn how to properly handle the babies who are often hooked up to various devices and are smaller and more fragile than other infants.”
At orientation, Nelson said the volunteers learned about hospital protocols, HIPPA and what rooms they may not be able to go in. But most importantly, Nelson said, they learned to go in with “a kind heart and spirit,” ready to assist the parents, babies and staff.
The COVID-19 pandemic struck three years later, and the program remained closed until this year. In January, Nelson heard that the cuddler program would be opening back up. By February, she was preparing to go back to volunteer.
“I never got rid of my apron or my badge, my ID, none of that. So, when they called me back, I was ready,” Nelson said. “It didn’t take long. I think I was the first one cleared … I was so happy; you would’ve thought I’d won the lottery.”
Nelson said the most challenging part of the job is wanting to be able to see and hold every baby, but not always being able to due to restrictions or time constraints. But Nelson said she “comes very close” to seeing every baby if she can.
“It gives me joy. It does. And I look forward to going,” she said. “My babies and everybody knows that’s my time. And my husband, oh, he’s a willing vessel. He’s retired, so as long as I get out of the house.”
Nelson said she can remember all the babies she’s cared for, even back to 2017. She remembers the babies’ names and the nurses’ names, a testament to how deeply she cherishes her time at UAB.
Nelson said she is happy she can care for the babies whose parents are somewhere else in the city, as her volunteer work is directed towards the preemies in the CCN and NICU.
“I just look at them as being small frame,” she said of the preemies. “They are human beings just like us. We just give them time, one day at a time, to continue to get better, to grow and hopefully leave and go home with their parents and siblings.”
Nelson told a story of a time where she was called up to the fourth floor to soothe a 6-month-old that no one could seem to calm down. Nelson said when she arrived the baby girl was lying on the floor surrounded by toys. Nelson joined her on the floor and began playing with her; Before long, all was quiet.
“The love that I show to them, I think that they feel that,” Nelson said of her baby-soothing techniques. “You just have to have the right attitude … Your main purpose is to go there to be of good service to the baby and to the staff and to their parents.”
Oftentimes, Nelson said she doesn’t leave until she knows the baby has a clean diaper, is “quiet and comfortable” and fast asleep.
“I just appreciate and am just grateful to the good Lord for giving me the opportunity to be there for those babies,” Nelson said.
The Neonatal Helping Hands program is currently accepting applications for new volunteers. Volunteer shifts are four hours, and shifts are available seven days a week. For more information or to apply, contact UAB Volunteer Services at 205-934-4270 or email email@example.com.