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Preemie pals' help at Stormont

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- A trip to Stormont-Vail Regional Health Center to see a coworker's sick infant turned into an experience for Kim Bieker that revealed a side of the medical field she wasn't aware of and prompted her into a volunteer role at the hospital.

Bieker, a 30-year-old staff lawyer with Kansas Legal Services in Topeka, saw a baby crying all alone in the neonatal unit. The scene tugged at her emotions. A nearby nurse explained that some parents can't be with their infant at all times with demanding work schedules or because they live far away.

The nurse then explained to Bieker about "preemie pals" -- volunteers in the hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit who assist in the ward and help care for and comfort the infants.

Nearly three years later, the 2007 graduate of Washburn University's law school absolutely loves the volunteer gig she accepted at the hospital shortly after that visit. She particularly enjoys holding the babies.

"I'm so glad that there's a program that allows that to happen," she said. "I'm not a parent, so the thought didn't even enter my mind that the parents couldn't be there all the time -- that there might be other things happening."

But Bieker does much more than just hold babies.

Stormont-Vail is participating in National Volunteer Week, which runs through Saturday (April 28), by recognizing its volunteers and auxiliary for all they do. A recognition event was scheduled for April 27.

There are 13 preemie pals at this time and more than 500 volunteers who work in 70 different areas of Stormont-Vail.

"Volunteers are vital to the hospital, our clinics and the community," said Beverly Rice, the hospital's director of volunteers and chaplaincy services. "They help enhance and support our mission to provide the best care we can possibly give to patients and their families."

Among the tasks Bieker and the other preemie pals tackle are laundry, diaper changes, temperature checks and feeding the babies. They also stock items, such as baby formula.

She typically volunteers for a few hours Thursday evenings.

"I have never thought about stopping this," she said. "I look forward to this every week."

Bieker said developing relationships with parents is encouraged because the parents want to know who is caring for their infant. The volunteers also can be a contact point for parents to learn how their baby is doing on a day-to-day basis.

Bieker said developing personal relationships with the infants and parents doesn't make it difficult to say goodbye when they are discharged from the unit. In fact, it is just the opposite.

"(The babies) are so happy and healthy, it's really great," she said. "We want that to happen."

Preemie pals go through training and job shadowing before beginning their volunteer time, and they continue to take training on various issues throughout their stints.

"It is really a great experience," Bieker said. "I would encourage anyone who even remotely wants to volunteer or become involved -- they don't even have to do the (neonatal care unit) -- this is a great program, and there's tons of things they can do to help hospitals."