Rick Valent can do what he wants. He’s retired.
So he drag races vintage cars for sport, and then he gets squeaky clean, throws on a set of scrubs and proceeds to cradle newborns at Northwest Medical Center. He’s the hospital’s chief baby cuddler.
“It’s so refreshing to go there,” he said. “You close the door behind you, and for the next four hours, it’s just you and the babies. You don’t have to worry about what’s going on in the world. You’re just spending time with these tiny people who love to be loved.”
Valent found his calling as a cuddler in 2006, shortly after he visited his newborn granddaughter in Florida and fell in love with her tiny features.
But the cuddling program — at the hospital’s Women’s Center at 6200 N. La Cholla Blvd. — began a year before that with a 15-year-old named Ashley.
Ashley often passed by the nursery, because her aunt worked in intensive care, and she held the opinion that volunteers should get to hold the babies. The teenager died in a car accident before her dream could be realized, but the hospital started “Ashley’s Angels” in 2005 in her honor.
Valent proudly displays an “Ashley’s Angels” decal on his race car.
Valent’s new vocation as a cuddler takes priority over other retirement activities because the babies bring him much joy, he said.
“The thing that really gets me excited is how they mature in the nursery and how attentive they become to their surroundings,” he said.
But he wants people to know that cuddler duty involves more than just warm fuzzies.
When Valent shows up for a shift, he finds carts that need stocking, beds that need making and cribs in need of sanitization. And because many of the nursery babies were born prematurely, volunteering sometimes means consoling little ones as nurses stick them with IV needles.
The cuddling is really just an added bonus, Valent said. But what a bonus it is when a tiny baby needs to be rocked to sleep.
“They keep me young,” Valent said. “And I hope I help them grow so they can leave the nursery.”
Other volunteers at Northwest Medical Center branches serve as messengers, drivers, gift shop workers, liaisons and emergency assistants. Training is provided for all of them. To get involved, call 742-9000.