As soon as the elevator doors opened to the hospital lobby, volunteer Debee Wachtel recognized the family inside. After all, she had spent close to three months cuddling twins Easton and Austin Woodman while they lived in the neonatal intensive care unit at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo this year.
“I know you,” she cooed at 6-month-old Austin, who was wriggling happily in his mother’s arms while his brother laid quietly in their tandem stroller. “I remember that face.”
The Woodmans are one of many families who have taken advantage of Sierra Vista’s cuddler program, where volunteers snuggle, cuddle, swaddle, coo and fuss over babies in the NICU to provide them with human contact when their parents and the hospital staff aren’t available.
“Touch is an incredibly important part of a baby’s life,” NICU medical director Dr. Steve Van Scoy said of the program. “It’s something we don’t think about all the time, because at home we’re doing this constantly with our babies. But when they are here, they are touched less because often times they are sick, initially, but they also need that touch. So once they get to that point where they can be held, we like to have them held as much as possible.”
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The cuddling program was a vital part of the Woodman babies’ first months — months that were characterized by numerous surgeries at Sierra Vista and Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital that left the new parents stretched thin between two hospitals and two babies.
When we hold them, it’s our baby. We treat them as if they were our baby, or our grandbaby. We’re here to just take the place of the mom that can’t be here.
Debee Wachtel, cuddler volunteer coordinator
Now as they prepare to celebrate their first Thanksgiving as a family, Dea Woodman and husband Danny said they couldn’t be more thankful for the love and care their twins received from the volunteer cuddlers.
“They are so caring and wonderful,” Dea said. “They are here for you when you are being pulled in different directions. Being in the NICU having children — even just one baby in the NICU is stressful — there’s a lot going on in your life, and the cuddlers are here for you. They are here for your baby. They are like an extension of you. They just want to give your baby all the love and compassion that sometimes you are not able to give because of medical reasons or whatever. They are an amazing group of people for sure.”
The Woodmans’ Story
When Dea entered one of the NICU rooms Saturday where her babies lived for their first few months — still carrying a cooing Austin in her arms — she let out a laugh.
“Oh no, not this place again,” she said, joking.
With 22 beds, the Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center Neonatal Intensive Care Unit is the largest of its kind between Santa Barbara and Salinas, hospital spokesman Ron Yukelson said. It will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year.
Even as a joke, it makes sense that the Woodmans have probably seen enough NICUs to last a lifetime: Easton was kept in intensive care for 100 days after the twins’ premature birth April 27, and Austin even longer, for 131 days.
The twins were born at 26 weeks, well before their August due date, because of an infection that had begun to spread into the umbilical cords, said Dea, who is also a medical biller and administrative assistant with the labor and delivery department at Sierra Vista.
“It was pretty scary actually,” she said. “I just spontaneously went into labor and it couldn’t be stopped, and then here they came.”
At birth the twins were tiny. The couple has pictures of a 1-pound, 12-ounce Austin wearing Danny’s wedding ring around his arm, and Easton, at 2 pounds and 6 ounces, wasn’t much larger. “About the size of a package of hamburger,” Dea said.
At 5 days old, Austin was transferred to Cottage Hospital for surgery on a hole in his small intestine. Danny, a firefighter with CalFire, accompanied Austin to the hospital and stayed there until he was transferred back May 29. Dea remained in San Luis Obispo with Easton, who was suffering from severe bleeding in his brain that was being treated at Sierra Vista. Austin was later transferred back to Cottage Hospital, after his first surgery failed, before returning to Sierra Vista once again.
“It was very scary in the beginning, but we knew they were in good hands, obviously being here with the great doctors and nurses and stuff,” Dea said. “Every day was a new adventure — and some setbacks, of course.”
At first, the babies were too small and too sick to be held. But eventually, they grew bigger and stronger, and the cuddling began.
Touch is an incredibly important part of a baby’s life. ... So once they get to that point where they can be held, we like to have them held as much as possible.
Dr. Steve Van Scoy, NICU medical director
“At first it was pretty scary, just given our situation,” Danny said. “We’d be going to lunch and whatnot, coming back and forth and they’d be holding them, walking them. It was scary at first because it’s a different person holding your kid, but once you got used to it and met the person, it was a very good experience.”
The cuddlers especially came in handy when Easton was discharged from the hospital a month before Austin, and Danny and Dea couldn’t always be with Austin, they said.
“I think it helps so, so much,” Dea said. “Especially with Austin — you can see he’s a little feisty sometimes — he really toward the end of his stay wanted that interaction with people. The nurses are so busy, and they have other babies to take care of and stuff, so the cuddlers really come in handy. Especially for that little feisty one who wants extra attention all the time.”
Now Austin and Easton are doing well at a little more than 12 and 15 pounds, respectively, and are more social than ever.
“They are really good with other people,” Dea laughed. “They smile, they laugh, they talk with everyone; they are just happy. They are happy babies.”
Wachtel is the person in charge of ensuring that good cuddling experience the Woodmans had.
As the program’s volunteer coordinator, she oversees a group of 38 volunteers who work shifts each week to cuddle babies in the 22-bed NICU.
The process for becoming a cuddler isn’t easy. Alongside strict rules regarding jewelry and perfumes, there’s also a waiting list. Between 8:30 a.m. and midnight, seven days a week (including holidays), a cuddler is always on duty in the NICU — ready to snuggle with a fussy baby, swaddle them and rock them back to sleep.
“Our purpose is to provide a gentle, calm environment for these little ones,” Wachtel said. “We just bring our love.”
The cuddlers are also there to aid the hospital staff, she said.
“The job they do, and the responsibilities they have to keep the babies alive and healthy, it is stunning,” Wachtel said. “I think that has been — beside the cuddling experience — just watching how hard those girls and men work, it’s really amazing. That’s been a very big positive in my life. It helps me understand and appreciate what the doctors and the nurses in the NICU do.”
While the Woodmans visited the NICU, Samantha Bassetti, one of the nurses who routinely watched over Easton and Austin while they were in the hospital, stopped by to see her former patients.
“It’s amazing to see them now, they’ve grown so much,” she said. “They’ve come a long way. And both of them from the start have been fighters. They’ve made great progress, and they are growing so much. It’s really great to see that their story was part of our story here at the NICU.”
Bassetti scooped up Easton — Austin was asleep in his mom’s arms — and walked around the room with him, oohing and ahhing, much to his babbling delight.
They are like an extension of you — they just want to give your baby all the love and compassion that sometimes you are not able to give because of medical reasons or whatever. They are an amazing group of people for sure.
Based on the reactions from Bassetti, Van Scoy and Wachtel, it’s clear that Austin and Easton were popular among the hospital staff during their stay.
“Their sweet faces — they just had those big eyes, these beautiful eyes,” said Wachtel, describing what she remembered most about the twins. “Sometimes babies are only here for one week, so we’ll see them on our scheduled shift that week. But then, the ones that are here long term, like Easton and Austin, you really get to fall in love with these little guys.
“When we hold them, it’s our baby. We treat them as if they were our baby, or our grandbaby. We’re here to just take the place of the mom that can’t be here.”
Wachtel, a retired teacher, said she couldn’t imagine spending her retirement in any way that would be better than as a cuddler. It’s something she said she thinks of at the end of every shift.
“(It’s) really just how privileged I am. And thankful,” she said. “I’m thankful that these new little lives have such great care, and that they are going to make it. And thankful that I get to be a part of that in a small way.”