Going Back: Volunteering in the NICU

November 14, 2014

DSC_0492When we rode the elevator down from the 7th floor NICU for the last time, we knew that one day, we would be back. This place where we’d logged a significant part of our life, 5 months to be exact, had become familiar. It had saved our baby’s life. So we knew that one day, we wanted to give back to this hospital, to offer our support to the families who would make that elevator ride after us. Two years later, I ride up to the 7th floor every month, taking in the sounds and smells that I know so well.

For me, volunteering back in the same hospital (the one I’d never planned to be admitted) has been healing. About a year after Tucker was home and doing well, I met with the nurses and a few other moms to brainstorm about beginning a new NICU Family Council. The nursing staff had wanted to start one for a while. They needed (and wanted) to hear from a council that could help them better understand the perspectives of parents going through the NICU journey. As former NICU parents, we wanted to provide emotional support to families walking the difficult path we had walked. The union of those two objectives was perfectly timed and so, the first Hemby NICU Family Council was established.

There are so many ways to volunteer both inside and outside the NICU and I’ll list a few here. For me, the greatest gift Tucker gave me in his super early arrival and the journey that followed is perspective. Before our journey with him, I didn’t feel nearly as compelled as I do now, to give back as a volunteer. During our NICU stay though, our life intersected with so many people who unprompted, volunteered their time in a way that made a huge impact for our family. People who gave blood. People who cooked meals at the Ronald McDonald House. People that did our laundry. I was so touched by these gestures, that the need to provide that same support to another family has taken up a big piece of my heart. It’s become one of the core values of our little family. Mostly though it reminds me to measure everything in my life by the biggest gift Tucker gave me, perspective.

Ways to Volunteer Post NICU

  1. Cook a meal at the local Ronald McDonald House
  2. Become a hospital volunteer
  3. Donate blood
  4. Become a NICU support parent
  5. Start a local preemie support group
  6. Knit hats for babies in the NICU
  7. Bring snacks to the NICU for special holidays
  8. Start a NICU Family Council
  9. Create NICU care packs for families in the NICU
  10. Volunteer with a local preemie organization

Volunteering back in the NICU isn’t something everyone feels comfortable doing. That’s totally ok. Some parents need a clean break, a fresh start away from the hospital. You may not want to be reminded of a place that was pretty darn scary for you and being back in that space may not be something you’re ever ready to do. Parents take their personal NICU experience in different directions once they leave the hospital. And that’s ok. For some NICU moms and dads, finding a way to give back specifically by volunteering in the NICU has given them healing and closure for their own experience. If you are considering volunteering inside the NICU, especially in a family support role, there are some things I’ve learned and will share here.

Tips for Volunteering Inside the NICU

  1. Be Ready – At the very basic level, pushing the NICU door open again isn’t always easy. It’s something for which you may need to prepare your heart ahead of time. The sights, sounds of alarms, and smell of the soap can be emotional triggers. All of those things may bring to the surface emotions you weren’t expecting. So, set up a time to go back and walk through those doors again and see if you’re truly at a place in your journey that you feel comfortable being back in the NICU. We ask parents on our NICU Family Council to be at least a year post discharge before they sign up. You want to make sure your heart is ready, so give it time.
  2. Recognize Unique Journeys – Every single family has a personal and unique journey through the NICU. This is so important to remember as you support other families. Your role as a support volunteer in the NICU should be mostly to listen. To offer emotional validation to moms and dads who are feeling all manner of emotions at all points during their personal journey. You may have had some of those same emotions and you may not. Understanding that each NICU story and each family copes with their journey differently is key.
  3. Collaborate With NICU Staff – The medical support staff in your NICU will often be your biggest allies. Collaborate with them on things like the best times to visit and what needs they might have that a volunteer team could fulfill.
  4. Get Trained – This is a biggie. If you’re interacting with families while they are currently in the NICU, you really should have at the very least a hospital volunteer training. (If you volunteer with Hand to Hold in the NICU or to support another parent, online training will be provided. Other nonprofits may offer similar training.) You want to make sure you understand HIPPA guidelines, hospital rules and volunteer regulations (some hospitals require basic medical records be up to date like TB test, flu shot etc.) Make sure to inquire about your NICU’s volunteer guidelines.

Regardless of where you give back, volunteering in the NICU can be a healing experience.