Photo: Courtesy of subjects

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Pat Rice and Claire Fitzgerald
The Baby Cuddlers
Years ago, when a doctor suspected their baby had a brain tumor, Claire Fitzgerald and Pat Rice spent many stressful hours in a hospital pediatric department. “Our son turned out to be fine, but I decided that when my hair turned gray, I would go back and say thank you,” says Fitzgerald. She kept her word: In 1995, at age 61, she started volunteering in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in California. Her task: to cuddle premature and sick infants when their parents couldn’t be with them. The next year she got her husband to join her. “I came home one day and said to Pat, ‘There don’t seem to be many men in the program.’ Bless his heart, I shamed him into volunteering.” Rice, who’s known for crooning Frank Sinatra tunes while rocking tiny patients to sleep, notes that soothing a baby can slow her racing heart and deepen her breathing. “These children get all the medical attention they need from the doctors and nurses, but we provide that extra special compassion and love,” he says. “We’re a part of the child’s healthcare team.”

Now, on top of holding infants for three hours a week (Fitzgerald was recently recognized by President Obama for putting in 4,000 hours at the hospital), the retired psychologists help lead the cuddlers training program and educate attending interns about TLC in the NICU. Thanks in part to their dedication, the cuddling program has become so popular that it has a year-long waiting list. “I remember a baby who weighed just a pound and a half who was in the NICU for three months. I’d hold her every time we went in,” says Fitzgerald. “Eight years later, we were at a soccer field watching one of our grandchildren when the coach said, ‘I’d like to introduce you to my daughter.’ This beautiful child with flowing blonde hair came over to us and said, ‘Can I hug you? My daddy and mommy said you used to hug me when I was little.’”