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Volunteers help the tiniest hospital patients feel safe and secure

TACOMA, Wash. -- Don Izenman says rocking a baby is like riding a bike -- once you've learned how, you never forget. Izenman has two kids who are all grown up. But now he devotes one morning a week to other people's children, as a volunteer baby ...

TACOMA, Wash. -- Don Izenman says rocking a baby is like riding a bike -- once you've learned how, you never forget.

Izenman has two kids who are all grown up. But now he devotes one morning a week to other people's children, as a volunteer baby rocker at Tacoma General Hospital.

"For babies, positive human touch is essential," says Chantel Rios, manager of the hospital neonatal intensive care unit. "When babies are held, they sleep and rest more."

And that helps hospitalized babies grow and heal, she says. When parents can't be there, or when they need a break from the draining hospital routine, volunteers such as Izenman step in with comforting movement, lullabies and smiles.

He's been doing the volunteer work for three years, since he retired from his job as a letter carrier.

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"Just because you're retired doesn't mean you're not useful," says Izenman, who lives in Tacoma, Wash. He says rocking babies is his way of making the community a better place.

"What better way than to start with the kids?" he asks.

Volunteers serve both the NICU and the intermediate care nursery. The babies are there for a variety of reasons. Some were born premature, some have malfunctioning lungs and others are born with heart or digestive tract problems.

Izenman recently spent some time in a rocking chair holding Bailey Rose Womack, born on Valentine's Day and still in the ICN after four months.

Born with her intestines outside her abdomen, Bailey has undergone four surgeries. Other than an angry scar down her belly, she bears no outward sign of the congenital malformation. When Izenman takes her on his lap, she smiles and sticks out her tongue. Izenman smiles, too.

Bailey's mom, Melanie, spends hours at the hospital every day caring for her daughter, coaxing the little girl to take her bottle. But after months of being there day in and day out, she sometimes needs a break. She says Bailey loves attention from the hospital volunteers, and she's grateful for the help they supply.

"She likes to be held," the Shelton mom says. "Since she is older, she's awake a lot more. She likes attention."

Michelle Fossum of Yelm, Wash., whose daughter Taylor Grace was born seven weeks early in May, says it's hard to leave her baby in the ICN when she's awake. But she knows she can rely on the volunteers to keep her daughter comforted until she returns.

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The volunteers also are a godsend to nurses, who often are too busy to pick up an infant immediately after the child starts crying. Each nurse typically cares for three patients, so spending a lot of time in a rocking chair isn't always feasible.

"The volunteers are wonderful," says Amanda Bradbury, a registered nurse who cares for babies in the ICN. "They save us on many days."

While the volunteers make the babies happy, the baby rockers get plenty of warm feelings in return.

"I don't know if I could ever explain it," says Kathy VanDenBergh of Lakewood, Wash., a retired school bus driver and grandmother of four. "I just love it. It's a real thrill to have a baby quit crying and go to sleep on your shoulder."

The volunteer job is a popular one -- so popular that the hospital currently has a waiting list with at least 20 names on it.

Volunteers tend to stick around, so it's hard to move from the waiting list to the active roster.

Laureen Dickson of Federal Way, Wash., has been rocking babies in the hospital nursery for nearly 18 years, and Elaine Berg of Tacoma is in her 19th year.

Dickson, who is retired from Weyerhaeuser Co., says she has always loved babies, even though she has never had children of her own. Her doctor told her about the volunteer program.

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"A lot of times I sing to them -- silly baby songs," says Dickson. "I talk to them about what I did the night before."

Just having a human touch, and hearing a calming voice, can help soothe the little ones.

"If they are anxious, as they begin to feel safe in your arms, they just kind of relax -- and so do you," says Dickson. "I come out of there feeling euphoric. It's the best job possible. It makes the baby feel good and the nurses are happy for the help."

Elaine Berg of Tacoma says she has sung "Teddy Bear's Picnic" a few thousand times over the years. Her time in the nursery is the highlight of the week for the retired school district secretary and grandmother.

"I treasure them so," she says of the babies. "There are some sad stories. But there are beautiful stories, too."

She also treasures how much she has learned from watching and talking with the nurses over the years.

"I am so impressed with the degree of caring those nurses show," she says.

Volunteers say they try not to get too attached to the babies they rock. Some are in the special care units for just a brief stay, but others stay for weeks or months.

"It's kind of bittersweet when they go," says Izenman. "But you're also thrilled that they're going home. You're glad, because that's the whole point."

Related Topics: HEALTH
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