Every so often, Carolyn Fisher's day is interrupted by a phone call.
"Can you rock a baby?" the voice on the other end asks.
Fisher drops what she's doing and drives to Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center's maternity ward in Plains Township, where a newborn struggling through drug withdrawal is waiting for her.
"You feel bad that they are starting out life with such a struggle, but you know you are a kind touch for them, a comforting touch, in those first days of their life, and that hopefully they'll continue down a path where they will have positiveness in their life and you can be that first positive spark," Fisher said.
The rocker/cuddler program has been in place for about three years at the hospital and brings in volunteers to comfort newborns who are born with a drug dependency. As with adults, the withdrawal is a difficult process and the newborns need extra care that busy nurses or family members cannot always provide, operations manager Donna Stancavage said.
While some of the babies are born with dependency on street drugs like heroin, others have mothers who had to continue taking pain medication because of an accident or disorder, she said. Along with an increase in births at the hospital, maternity staff members are seeing more mothers with drug issues. Their children often need to stay for days or weeks, and while, depending on the situation, some mothers are able to visit their infants, they cannot stay 24 hours a day.
"If that baby were left to cry for four hours, that little baby would be beside himself. Their little metabolic heart rate goes up, they start profusely sweating. You just have to see one, to actually appreciate what these babies go through and then to appreciate what a rocker/cuddler does for this not to happen to the baby," Stancavage said.
Fisher, 57, is one of 21 "cuddlers" who take turns rocking, swaying, feeding and even changing the newborns. While all infants cry, these struggle more. Their cries are more shrill than normal, they sneeze constantly, they startle very easily, their bodies tense and curl up and it can take some hours to relax, even with constant cuddling, Stancavage said. Nurses monitor an infant's progress, applying morphine when necessary and taking the dose down as symptoms subside.
"You feel a little unsure at first, but you just hold the babies and keep them nice and snuggly and they really like the comfort of being held tight. They are just warm, cuddly bundles. And when you see them start to calm down and relax, you know you are doing your job and they're more comfortable and it really helps to know what you are doing is effective," Fisher said.
Because of privacy laws, Fisher frequently knows very little about the mother and family of a child for whom she is caring. Once, a mother who was trying turn her life around who had plans to live with her child in a halfway house was in the nursery with Fisher.
"Sometimes they refer to the babies as drug babies and she overheard that and she said, 'Oh, I really wish they wouldn't call them that."
Fisher remembered. "And it gave me the perspective that this is your little baby. So I've learned to call them special needs babies instead of drug babies because it sounds softer, it sounds more personal."
A registered nurse by profession but semi-retired, Fisher and her husband have two golden retrievers but no children in their Mountain Top home. She looks at the dozen or so babies she's helped as her surrogate children. Depending on availability, cuddlers can hold an infant for four to six hours.
"Who doesn't like to hold babies? And if you can sit and cuddle them and make them feel happy, that's all the more special," she said.
Cuddlers go through orientation and background checks, Stancavage said, and she expects the rocker/cuddler program to expand with the opening of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in October, when the hospital will be able to care for infants born extremely prematurely.
Fisher hopes that the families of all the infants cuddled can rest easier knowing someone is there for their little one.
"You're helping the nurses, you're helping the baby, and you just hope that the whole family situation gets ironed out down the road and you know you've been a small part in that family getting its pieces back together again," she said.