Q & A with Sr. Frances Joseph Piazza, cuddling babies in the NICU

Sr. Frances Joseph Piazza, a Sister of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, with one of her charges (Provided photo)

For the last nine years, 83-year-old Frances Joseph Piazza, a Sister of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, has spent her days as a baby cuddler at the Sisters of Charity Hospital neonatal intensive care unit in Buffalo, New York. The former pediatric nurse and nursing home administrator began her cuddling ministry in 2009 after retirement.

Piazza's enthusiasm for baby-cuddling has earned her a reputation in her community. Every day when she comes home, they say, she shares about the baby she held that day and exclaims, "They are so cuuute!"

Piazza talked to Global Sisters Report about her babies and why she thinks cuddling is an important ministry.

GSR: How did you get started as a baby cuddler?

Piazza: Well, when I retired, I thought I needed something to do, perhaps with children. I did apply for a volunteer job at Sisters of Charity Hospital — it was for a waiting room or something with parents or children. But the hours were not good, so they asked if I had any other interests, and I said yes, I was interested in babies. They said, "Well, we're going to start a cuddler program in the NICU. That'd be perfect for you."

So, I did volunteer in the NICU, working as a volunteer and a cuddler at the same time. But, presently, I just do cuddling work and not volunteer work at the desk because I'm busy cuddling. I now work five days a week instead of one or two days a week. They needed me, like, every day, so I do work five days a week.

What do you like about being a cuddler?

I enjoy being a cuddler very much because I think there's a feeling there that you're needed to provide this interaction in the NICU with the babies who need you. And you can comfort the sick babies. That's what I do when mothers can't be there.

Being a cuddler sounds so rewarding. Is it ever hard? NICUs can be tough places.

Being a cuddler can be very difficult, especially with babies that are NAS [neonatal abstinence syndrome] babies. They don't want to just settle down. And the actual setup in the unit with the lights and the sticks the babies have to have for drawing blood are very painful.

But I think what sustains me through these challenges is I look at it as a spiritual experience. Babies are special; they're chosen by God for a specific work in his plan. So even the babies that are NAS babies, there's a plan for them, and God will take care of them. So I see it as a special opportunity to accept these challenges and, I say, a spiritual experience.

Where do you see the Holy Spirit in this ministry?

I think the Holy Spirit is guiding and directing me in this ministry to make the best use of my time.

Do you think parents see the Holy Spirit working through you?

I do think so, yes. They do often say, "You were our blessing," and I always say the babies are a blessing to them. But they have commented. They tell me their troubles every now and again, and if I can help them in any way, I do. For instance, if they can't get in to see the baby because they have no transportation, I talk to the social worker, and she's then able to arrange a taxi for wherever they are.

And you pray for the babies?

I have their names written down in a little book that I use daily in the chapel. I include their name and, on that date, what I did for them.

Would you recommend being a cuddler to other sisters?

Yes, I do recommend it, but I also feel they have to be called to do this type of work. My background as a nurse does help me because there is a lot of excitement on an intensive-care unit: There's monitors going off, and you have to know a little bit about when it's really critical that somebody be in there.

You need patience. Baby's crying and you can't comfort 'em? That does happen, and they do check on you to see if you need any help — if you want to give the baby back to the nurse or put the baby back in the crib. I have never had to do that, but I can understand there are people who would have to do that because you can't handle them. You don't know what else to do. And you think it's you, but it isn't. It's the baby, and you just keep trying.

[Dawn Araujo-Hawkins is a Global Sisters Report staff writer. Her email address is daraujo@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @dawn_cherie.]

Get GSR right in your inbox! Sign up for our eNewsletter.