NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Inside Ochsner Baptist Hospital, 7-month-old De-Mai receives lots of attention. Ever so gingerly, she's held and rocked. The human contact helps her grow.
This is one of Jeff and Terry Stadler's greatest joys. (To learn more about volunteering, click here.)
"We get as much out of it as, I guess, probably the babies, the parents and the staff here," Jeff said.
The Stadlers love De-Mai as one of their own. But she's not family - they are volunteers.
"We were looking for an opportunity to be a part of something we really believe in and really enjoy, and what could be more perfect than the NICU?" Jeff said.
"It's very important for the baby, from the beginning, to have a little positive touch," NICU nurse Carolyn Gilcrease explained.
The Stadlers step in when extreme circumstances prevent the parents from being there.
"You want that baby to respond to soft voices by making eye contact, so our volunteers will do that when parents can't be here," Gilcrease said. "They will provide that soft touch."
Some babies are forced to spend months in a NICU and that forces many moms and dads to rely on people like the Stadlers to provide comfort to the baby. That's the case with De'Mai's mom.
"I wish she could be home right now, but she can't," said Dataishia Comeaux.
Little De'Mai was born at just 25 weeks.
"She was the size of my hand," Comeaux said.
Her lungs are still not fully developed.
"I didn't think that I'd become a preemie mom, especially because I'm young, you know?" Comeaux said.
Comeaux lives in Lafayette and doesn't havea car. She can't be with her baby as often as she'd like.
"I get emotional sometimes," she said.
She said it's overwhelming - the stress of having a sick baby and plus figuring out how to get to see her.
"Everything that she's been through, that I've been through, it's crazy," Comeaux said.
Every week, De'Mai fights to get stronger, thanks in part to the doctors and nurses at Ochsner, but also people like Jeff and Terry Stadler.
"The volunteers are a source of comfort," Gilcrease explained.
"I'm not here so it kinda eases me, you know being that she's ok and they're giving her all the attention," Comeaux said.
"They come on weekends, they come on holidays, they come in the evenings," Gilcrease said.
The Stadlers enjoy being surrogates to these babies. As empty nesters, they're filling a void with their grandchildren being hundreds of miles away.
"Nothing quite like holding your own baby, and our babies up in Kansas City are a little too big to hold now, but nothing much more special than holding these babies," Jeff said.
"They're very compassionate people, they definitely want to give something of themselves, and its definitely appreciated," Gilcrease said.
"Yeah we really, really enjoy being here together," Jeff said.
Jeff said there is something more rewarding than stepping in when a baby is ill.
"One of the really special things is when you get to meet the mom or the dad or the parents or loved ones," he said. "That's really, really a neat feeling."
"They appreciate it dearly because it's nice when we can meet the parents because they can put a face with a person who's holding their baby," Terry said.
But the best part is the success stories.
"We've seen some unbelievable things. One-pound babies leave, and you kinda follow them on Facebook and see these babies just thrive," Jeff said.
That's what they're hoping for for little De'Mai.
"It's almost time for her to come home," Comeaux said.
It will be a long road to recovery for the baby, but the Stadlers and the many other volunteers at Ochsner certainly play a part. Their love and cuddles are helping her to grow and giving De'Mai a better shot at life.
Ochsner is currently looking for volunteers for the pediatric intensive care unit. If you're interested, you're asked to call 504-842-5085 or send an email to email@example.com