Carol Albury spends her work days providing comfort to elderly patients as a part-time registered nurse at Community Hospice. As a nurse for more than 40 years, Carol built her career around helping people. But she recognizes that career is coming to an end soon.
“My career is almost over, so a couple years ago I thought to myself, ‘what am I going to do at the end of the road?’ I still want to help people, but not necessarily in the way that I do now,” Carol explains.
So she decided to go full-circle.
Every Wednesday, Carol spends four hours in the NICU at St. Vincent’s Southside cuddling infants, some of which are suffering from opiate withdrawal as a result of troubled pregnancies. It may not be quite what Carol is used to, but it comes to her naturally.
“In my job as a hospice nurse, I try to provide comfort to patients who are at the end of their lives,” Carol says. “When I volunteer, I’m doing the same thing. The only difference is these patients are just starting their lives.”
Carol is one of five volunteers working in the NICU Cuddlers program at St. Vincent’s Southside. The program, which began two years ago at Southside and just recently was brought to St. Vincent’s Riverside, allows infants experiencing tremors other symptoms of opiate withdrawal to receive the physical contact they need while freeing up nurses to tend to other duties.
When the baby count in the NICU is low, the cuddlers assist in other ways by answering the phone, assisting with manual logbooks, and observing the monitored door for entrance. Though the program is still relatively young, the volunteers have been welcomed with open arms by nurses and patients alike.
“A lot of mothers find it very reassuring that their baby will be comfortable even when they can’t be there,” explains Melissa Kennedy, Volunteer Coordinator at St. Vincent’s Southside. “There was a case not long ago with a set of twins, one got to go home and the other didn’t. The mother was torn, but she took comfort in knowing our volunteers would keep the baby safe and loved.”
Babies born prematurely or with complications typically benefit from less handling, so most of the babies handled by volunteer cuddlers are ones suffering from opiate withdrawal.
“Those babies are, to me, among the most vulnerable. They’re brought into this world feeling pain and not knowing why,” Melissa says. “I know adults have a horrible time with addiction, but these babies have no idea why they feel this way. To them, it’s just what being alive is.”
If she could, Carol would take every ounce of pain away from each infant she handles. While she may not be able to see the long-term effects of her time with each child, she can feel their breathing grow steady and their thrashing limbs settle as she rocks back and forth with them. In the moment, that goes a long way.
“It fills me with such joy knowing I’ve comforted just one of these babies,” Carol says, describing the highlight of her week. “When I’m cradling an infant, I’m thinking to myself, ‘You’re just starting your life. You have all the opportunities in the world before you.’ I say a prayer with them hoping their lives are the best they can be.”
Rounding out her career at St. Vincent’s feels right for Carol. She graduated from St. Vincent’s Nursing School in 1972 and worked at the Riverside campus for more than 30 years. She says her time here with the Daughters of Charity gave her a reverence for life that has influenced her in many ways.
“Seeing these babies and being able to provide comfort for them just reminds me of importance of human life. To me, that’s what St. Vincent’s has been about for 100 years.”