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Med. School Volunteers Read to Infants at the Hennepin Healthcare NICU

A voluneer reads to an infant at the Hennepin Healthcare NICU

(February 2023) The new Hennepin Healthcare Reach Out and Read NICU program, where NICU healthcare providers give books along with guidance for stimulation and bonding to parents with an infant in the NICU, is one of the first of such programs in the country. Recently University of Minnesota Medical School students have begun volunteering to help support the program and read to infants when parents cannot be present.

Learn more about this effort with the following article from the Hennepin Healthcare Foundation, written by Elizabeth Bonin. You can read the full Hennepin Healthcare Foundation Winter Newsletter here

Once Upon a Time Starts in the NICU

Once upon a time, a NICU nurse attended a conference and a group of U of M medical students called about volunteer opportunities. The story unfolds to reveal a new volunteer partnership that brings storytelling to our youngest patients.

The idea to read to babies started when Kolleen Amon, a neonatal nurse practitioner, attended a conference and was inspired by another hospital’s neonatal intensive language nutrition program. Around the same time, the national Reach Out and Read program was developing a NICU pilot program.

“80 percent of our brain development is in the first 18 months of life. I thought it was so powerful to think about the opportunity that we can have with brain development if we could start a similar program,” Kolleen said.

After applying, Hennepin Healthcare was officially approved as a NICU Reach Out and Read site in April 2022, one of two in Minnesota. Betsy Schaefer Roob, children’s literacy liaison, said this program is much needed.

“The NICU can be a loud environment with machines, alarms, and people talking,” Betsy said. “There’s a lot of stimulation, but babies aren’t necessarily getting that early language exposure needed for brain development. It also gives families a way to connect during a stressful time.”

Though the program was approved, the NICU still needed volunteer readers for when parents were unable to be at the hospital. The need was quickly filled when a group of first year University of Minnesota medical students contacted Hennepin Healthcare Volunteer Services in search of a project to partner with a community organization.

“It couldn’t have been better timing,” Betsy said.

Medical students Sophie Harris, Marin Melloy, Abby Brustad and Maggie Fisher focused on training and scheduling their colleagues for NICU reading shifts. To date, the group has successfully trained about 30 medical students, with more hoping to join over the winter. Some of the students are bilingual, so babies may hear stories in their native language.

Sophie and Marin emphasized that the experience was invaluable, especially since they typically don’t get much clinic time until their third year as medical students. “It’s one thing to put this on our resumes and residency applications, but it’s another thing to say we helped our community. This is going to be really powerful for new parents experiencing a difficult time,” Sophie said.

“We learned how to work as a team, to delegate, and to not be afraid to ask questions,” Marin shared. “The HCMC staff was instrumental in helping us develop the training and sign-up process.”

They plan to pass on the NICU reading program to another group of first-year students who can continue and improve it.

For parents, the new program gives them another way to interact with their newborns. “It’s amazing to see their eyes light up when I explain Reach Out and Read to them and how important language nutrition is,” Kolleen said. “It’s something they can do for their baby when everything else seems out of control.”

Nurse Practitioner Sarah Pelinka expressed her gratitude for the volunteers.

“As staff, we appreciate that the volunteers can snuggle and love on the babies while we’re taking care of other infants,” Sarah shared. “They have all been so kind and careful with our little ones.”

Kolleen added that the reading benefits don’t stop with the parents and babies. “The medical school path isn’t easy,” Kolleen said. “Students can come in and have this pressure release. Maybe it can be one more way to help with the mental health of another population we serve.”

Looking to the future, Kolleen and Betsy hope to expand the number and variety of both volunteers and books. “Babies are in the NICU 24/7, so there is a lot of choice for volunteers,” Betsy said. “The more high-quality books in a variety of languages, the better.”

These happy endings are just the beginning.

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