Don Rhodes exudes a gentle calm. It could be the grandfatherly grey hair or tempered voice. Seated in a rocking chair, Rhodes shelters a premature infant in a red and white crocheted cap and hums. “I put them over my heart. The vibrations come through my chest to soothe them,” he says.
Rhodes has been putting babies and parents at ease for nine years. “I always tell any moms or dads I see in the nursery that I’m healthy, and the baby is in good hands. I think about how they might feel if they came around the corner and saw a strange man holding their child.”
But that is exactly Rhodes’ job – to hold other people’s babies who can’t be present due to work or distance or other siblings when their child requires attention. He has extensive training as a Special Care Nursery Technician to monitor the needs of these miniature beings.
Nurses indicate when the babies wish to be held or fed or offered comfort or simply want to interact. They are also protective as one glared at me and asked, “Are you trying to wake my baby?”
“Mother of four? Not me,” I whispered.
Rhodes is the pro, however, and said, “I rub their backs or tap their bottoms to assure them that I’m here. Intuition directs me. Some like Sinatra music and some like Calypso. You have to study the baby.”
“Only one time was a baby hysterical, and there was nothing I could do,” Rhodes said. “The doctor came from around the corner and quieted him. It was a drug baby. And I’ve never been around when a baby hasn’t made it.”
Most premature infants or preemies do make it. Ninety percent of babies weighing 800 grams (under two pounds) or more survive. Preemies enter the world before 37 weeks and weigh 500 – 2500 grams. Physical stresses such as smoking, drinking or drugs can cause early birth, but there are other reasons babies birth before they’re ready. Some mothers have a hormonal imbalance, physical abnormality, chronic illness or infection.
With an early arrival come extraordinary circumstances. Nurses from the Special Care Nursery are present at premature deliveries to begin the process of support and observation. Warmth is crucial due to lack of body fat and nutritional needs increase. Babies are swaddled in an incubator and monitored. Preemies grow at a faster pace than full-term infants, yet neonatologists still recommend breast milk is best with additional vitamins and minerals. Babies feed through a tube in the nose and transition to a bottle and breast.
A sign on the wall behind Rhodes read, “Quiet Please: Our babies are developing and growing.” And as we talked, his connection to tiny babies became more obvious. All of his three children were premature with only his middle son surviving. Perhaps, it’s a natural gravitation because Physical Therapist Suzie Zwick came to work in the Special Care Nursery four years ago in the same way, after having premature twin boys.
Once a newborn is admitted, education begins for the parents, something she understands. “Moms are the most important thing to that baby,” Zwick said. “They say, ‘I wish I could’ve kept that baby in for at least another week.’ So, we support Mom’s care in helping with the baby’s care.”
With skin-to-skin bonding or “kangaroo care,” a baby responds to Mom by opening his eyes or turning his head. “We ask Mom to bring an article of clothing to put in the Isolette (incubator) or ask for her scent on a Zackeez,” Zwick said. The forearm and hand-shaped fleece pillow snuggles babies like a mother’s hug.
Other tools include prone pillows in foam or micro-beads and a gel pad for the head. Preemies lack the tight flex posture of term babies who were squeezed by the uterus, and without these aids, their limper bodies fall open, causing rigid positioning and deformities. They need swaddling and a tucked posture to mimic gestational life.
The challenge is to keep the preemie’s brain developing and not shut down. It’s a tough balance between overstimulation where the baby turns away or splays its fingers to say, “Stop!” and progress. So, what is positive growth? “When the baby’s eyes are open and interacting with you,” said Zwick. “When she puts her hand to her face or sucks her fingers. The goal is to develop self-consoling behaviors and ‘organizing’ rhythms or patterns like suck, swallow and breathe. And to maintain position on their own, no accessories.”
“Homeward Bound,” said the sign over an Isolette, reminding everyone of the destination. As the nurses rally around their babies, the bittersweet day is gauged in today’s Special Care Nursery, not by age or weight, but by behavioral development.
“The Rockers, or Baby Whisperers as we call them, help us fill that gap,” said Zwick.
Rhodes nestled a baby against his shoulder. “Sometimes they just want to be quiet and look around.” Brown eyes blinked at me, and she yawned. I felt drowsy myself in the dimly lit, toasty room and wondered if Rhodes ever fell asleep on the job.
He laughed. “I was threatened,” he said, smoothing a bushy eyebrow, “that if I ever fell asleep, someone would shave one eyebrow.” Serious again, he added, “This gives me a good feeling. And it takes commitment. You don’t just come in, hold a baby and leave. It takes time and doing it regularly.”
You can find Don Rhodes, Baby Whisperer, gently tapping and humming at FMC for two to three hours, two to three times a week. NAMLM
Gail G. Collins