Meet Joan: The ‘Grandma Cuddler’

Longtime volunteer Joan Hart provides love and a soothing touch to the tiniest and most fragile of patients.

Joan Hart cradles 4-month-old David Alexander Vidal in her arms, speaking softly, her right hand gently stroking his head and cheek. Every few minutes, a nurse quietly comes by to check in on them in the neonatal intensive care unit at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.

Just moments before, David was fitful and crying in his crib, a colorful animal mobile above his head unable to appease him. But one minute in Joan’s arms and he becomes entranced. David looks up at her with big brown eyes. It’s as if he knows he is in the gentlest of hands.

Joan, 81, is neither a nurse nor a parent nor a relative. She is a “cuddler,” a volunteer in NewYork-Presbyterian’s NICU Cuddler Program. As a “senior cuddler” or “Grandma Cuddler,” as the NICU staff and parents have come to call her, Joan has volunteered at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital for ten years and was the hospital’s first cuddler.

A Program That Meets Many Needs

The Cuddler Program, conceived in 2011 by the hospital’s nursing department, was created to bring comfort to infants whose parents couldn’t be at their bedside at all times for a variety of reasons: other children at home, work, or their own medical needs.

“The Cuddler Program helps parents feel a little bit better knowing that their baby will be comforted and soothed when they are not here,” says Christy Dowd, a child life specialist who works closely with Joan and the other volunteers.

Cuddling also has enormous benefits for infants. According to Dowd, “These babies’ brains are like sponges, and they’re learning more and more each day. When they are receiving different medical procedures and constant negative stimuli, it’s extremely important for their social-emotional development to have that comforting touch in between.”

“We’re not taking temperatures. We’re not drawing blood. We’re not showing them how to move,” says Joan. “We’re just a love bug. That’s it. And what better thing to do than to bring a little bit of joy and a kind touch?”

A Natural

On Tuesday mornings, Joan travels an hour and a half on the subway from Queens, New York, to the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan, where she spends hours walking the halls of Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital’s NICU, soothing and comforting the smallest of patients.

Wearing her hospital volunteer ID and a teal-colored jacket with “Cuddler” printed on the lapel, Joan checks in with the charge nurse to learn which babies need extra attention that day. She then makes her way to the NICU, washing her hands thoroughly before entering, and does what she calls “her rounds.” Meaning, she quietly stands at the entrance of the NICU and listens for a baby’s cry. “My ears are tuned in when I walk in that door,” says Joan. “I look around and say, ‘What’s the cause of the crying?’ Sometimes it’s mom changing a diaper or nurses or doctors fussing with them, but if no one’s there and they’re fussing, that’s when it’s cuddler to the rescue!”

She first checks with a nurse to make sure the baby can be cuddled, which can be “a gentle pat-pat-pat on the back or holding their hand,” she says. A pacifier is one way Joan helps to soothe the babies, which also encourages them to learn how to suck. Another way is swaddling, which helps them feel contained and secure. Other times, Joan holds a baby while she’s sitting down, with the approval and help of a nurse.

Joan’s techniques are part instincts and part cuddle training, which involves seven hours of orientation with a nurse and four hours shadowing a child life specialist. The training shows cuddlers how the nurses interact and handle the babies and how the Child Life team helps with infant development.

“When I hold them, sometimes I hum or sing — tunes like “You Are My Sunshine” or Frank Sinatra’s love songs — or I talk to them. I tell them, ‘You have to eat and sleep so you can get big and strong.’ I talk to them about their future. I say, ‘You think a pacifier’s good? Wait till you see ice cream or lollipops or pancakes.’”

According to Joan, “holding them with love and taking the babies’ cues” are what guide her.

“There was a period of time in my life when I thought I’d marry someone and have lots of kids, but that didn’t happen. I don’t have children, but I feel I have angels all over. That’s what they are to me — my little angels.”

— Joan Hart

A Longtime Volunteer

As an active member in her community in Forest Hills, Queens, volunteering has always been a passion for Joan, especially at hospitals. “I’ve sort of always been a wannabe nurse — I have many nurses in my family,” she says. After retiring from her job as a senior staff administrator at IBM, she decided she also wanted to work with children. When a friend told her about volunteering opportunities at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, she applied right away.

Joan had been volunteering at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital for two years before she found out about plans for a Cuddler Program in 2011. At the time, she was helping with a program called “Mother’s Treat Day,” where she would walk the halls of the NICU and ask the moms if they wanted a massage or manicure. Joan remembers seeing the “little munchkins in the NICU, but I couldn’t hold them.”

By that time, the NICU nurses knew Joan and loved having her around. As the Cuddler Program was about to launch, Deborah Acevedo, then the NICU’s assistant head nurse who helped create and managed the program, approached Joan to see if she would be interested in being their first cuddler.

“The words weren’t out of her mouth when I said, ‘Of course I would! Who wouldn’t?’ The rest is history,” says Joan.

More Than A Helping Hand

Joan works in close proximity with the NICU nurses, and the second the nurses see her, they light up.

“We just love Joan,” says Dynella Russo, a NICU nurse who always gives Joan a big hug when she sees her. “She’s always got such a positive attitude — not to mention she’s hilarious — and she’s so helpful. The parents love her, too.”

A common sentiment shared by many of the nursing staff is that Joan feels like a family member to them. “Joan makes me feel like I’m interacting with someone who has been part of my family and my life for a very long time,” says Dowd. “She’s just a natural caregiver who genuinely cares about every person she comes into contact with. She’s definitely a light in the NICU, for sure.”

A Comfort to Parents

On this particular morning in the NICU, David is one of the lucky babies receiving Joan’s love and attention. Born at 31 weeks and 4 days and weighing just 3.6 pounds, David needed surgery to treat necrotizing enterocolitis, a condition in which bacteria invade the wall of the intestine, causing an infection. While the surgery two weeks after he was born went well, he still needed time to grow and gain strength before heading home. His mom, Johanna, had heard about “Grandma Joan” from the nursing staff and was eager to meet her.

The two met at the beginning of Joan’s shift, embracing as if they were long-time friends. Joan affectionately took Johanna’s hands and told her what a sweet boy David is and how lucky she is to have him.

“She truly is like a grandmother to my son,” says Johanna. “She showed him love and support when I couldn’t be here. She has such an amazing heart. You can see she’s selfless and has such love and compassion. I’m so thankful for her.”

Joan acknowledges that she benefits as much as her tiny patients. “I like to say I cuddle them and they cuddle me back,” she says, chuckling. “I’ve loved every minute of it. There was a period of time in my life when I thought I’d marry someone and have lots of kids, but that didn’t happen. I don’t have children, but I feel I have angels all over. That’s what they are to me — my little angels.”

Cuddlers are expected to dedicate four hours a week, but often Joan will stay six or seven hours, depending on how many children are in need.

“I fall in love every week,” she says. “The minute you hold them and look into their sweet faces, you connect instantly. Each one has its own way to my heart.”

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Candidates must have one year of pediatric inpatient volunteer experience with any hospital and are also required to have one year of infant experience. “We want to make sure that cuddlers understand medical terminology and are familiar with that type of setting,” says Dowd. Once those qualifications are met, background and reference checks and interviews with Volunteer Services and the Child Life team are then completed. A somewhat extensive process, but as Joan and Dowd can attest, well worth it.

Learn more about the Cuddler Program and other volunteer opportunities by visiting NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital’s volunteer page.

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