MORGANTOWN, W.Va -- It’s almost immediately obvious that Pat Holgorsen has done this before. As she settles in for another rocking session with a days-old infant, the grandmother of eight falls into a zen-like state of calm.
“I’ve always loved babies,” she told ABC News. “And it just feels like a real need.”
Holgorsen is one of dozens of cuddle volunteers at West Virginia University (WVU) Medicine in Morgantown, West Virginia, operating on the front lines of the state’s devastating opioid epidemic.
As the Appalachian state continues to lead the country with the most drug overdose deaths, these volunteers' humble shifts have now taken on an extra sense of community urgency.
Of all the babies born at WVU Medicine, about 10.5 to 11 percent were exposed to drugs in the womb, and of those about 4.3 percent went through active withdrawal after birth, according to Dr. Cody Smith, a WVU Medicine neonatologist.
Smith said that doctors at WVU Medicine try as often as is possible not to separate mothers from their babies, but in some cases, it's necessary -- which is when the cuddlers work is most valued.
“If a baby has to be separated from a mother, father, family for one reason or another -– whether it’s for [drug] treatment, you know, or a social service issue, or something like that -– that baby doesn’t get held nearly as much as they would if a family was there,” Smith told ABC News.
“So, we ask these cuddlers to come in and to love on these babies and hold these babies, who can be incredibly fussy, and irritable and jittery, and to try and calm them down for us," he said. "So that we don’t have to start a medication.”
He said symptoms of infant drug withdrawal typically materialize when the baby is three to five days after birth, so they often begin their lives in normal nurseries under strict monitoring if and until they display symptoms of withdrawal.
Dr. Smith said symptoms of withdrawal can sometimes include fussiness, jittery or excessive sneezing and coughing, and upset stomachs.
“So the cuddler program fits in beautifully because our goal is to not start a medication if we don’t need to,” he said.
As a cuddle volunteer, Holgorsen’s job is to float around WVU Medicine’s nurseries and help the nurses soothe babies when needed. Since drug-exposed babies can be more fussy, they can take longer to calm down. Dr. Smith noted that cuddlers are not confined to babies in drug withdrawal and tend to healthy babies and drug-exposed babies not suffering drug withdrawal as well.
“You just don’t realize how bad it really is,” Holgorsen said. “That definitely makes you feel more compassion for the issue and want to do whatever you can.”
First lady, Melania Trump, plans to meet with families affected by pregnancy opioid exposure while she is in Philadelphia, PA on Wednesday.
It is one of the stops she’s making as part of her “Be Best” campaign, focusing on children’s issues, according to the Associated Press.