Volunteer grandmother

Janet Kuhrmeyer's 15 years as the guardian angel of St. Paul's babies

Every Monday at 7 a.m., Janet Kuhrmeyer arrives at the Mother Baby Center of United Hospital in St. Paul. She always goes straight for the antiseptic wipes and gives the computer keyboards and the supply cabinets, constantly in use by doctors and nurses, a good once-over.

Keeping a sterile environment around newborn babies has been an essential goal since Kuhrmeyer first started working as a nurse. Sixty-five years ago.

Kuhrmeyer, 87, has volunteered in the nursery at United for the last 15 years. When acquaintances ask what she does there, Kuhrmeyer's answer leads to instant fits of envy.

"I rock babies," she says, smiling.

In truth, there's a good deal more to it than that. Kuhrmeyer also assists nurses with circumcisions and hearing tests, and helps transport tiny new humans from the nursery back to their mothers. If a baby cries from a soiled diaper, Kuhrmeyer's there to change it, a task some new parents dread, but she doesn't mind one bit. She gives a little shrug.

"It's just a part of baby care."

In other cases, Kuhrmeyer thinks babies start crying from the sheer shock of a new experience. After nine months gestating, attached to mom's warmth, they're cut loose, literally, and exposed to a cold, open-air environment. Babies resting in the nursery are snugly swaddled to keep them comfortable, but they can get a little lonely.

"They love to be held," Kuhrmeyer says. "You just pick them up, and talk to them, and that usually calms them down."

Since 2001, Kuhrmeyer has spent more than 2,800 hours volunteering at the nursery. Only the very worst snowstorms have kept her from making the commute from her suburban home.

Kuhrmeyer's interest goes back as far as she can remember. She started working as a nurse at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul in 1952. Just two years later, she stopped working, as she and her husband Carl decided to start having babies of their own. She delivered all three of hers at St. Luke's, the old name for the hospital where she now volunteers.

You could chart the changing nature of newborn care through the course of Kuhrmeyer's experience as a nurse, mother, and now volunteer. Back in the 1950s, babies were quickly shuttled off to the nursery, where they often stayed for days while mothers rested in their hospital room. Both stayed in the hospital for extended rest and observation; Kuhrmeyer recalls spending five days in St. Luke's after her first child was born.

The program that enlists non-medical personnel to help care for newborns dates back about 20 years at United Hospital, and is something of a rarity in local natal care, according to Kathy Schoenbeck, director of the hospital's Mother Baby Center. Volunteers, generally retired women, or those without full-time jobs, spend a few hours at a stretch giving harried nurses a bit of assistance at stressful times, providing an extra set of hands to care for babies who are healthy but still need affection.

It's changing though. In recent years, research has shown the importance of babies spending time with their mothers, especially with skin-to-skin contact, during the first few hours of life.

"In that first hour, if the baby gets an opportunity to go skin-to-skin... just latching on, or even rooting at the breast," Schoenbeck says, "the success rate for breastfeeding is way higher. And we know breastfeeding is the best thing for mom, and baby, for multiple, multiple reasons."

One first-time mother was faced with the decision last month. After 24 straight hours in the delivery room, the last four of them in intense labor, the chance to finally sleep sounded enticing. But she was swayed by the information about the importance of skin-to-skin contact, and took her baby back. Her sleep could wait.

The shift in philosophy means fewer babies are spending extended time in the nursery. Kuhrmeyer's help soothing them is needed less and less these last few years. She admits this saddens her a little, but ultimately, she just wants what's best for the babies.

Kuhrmeyer doesn't ask for much in the way of thanks for her volunteering. She's downright embarrassed at the thought this column would be about her, and not all the other volunteers or the nurses and "wonderful" doctors she works with.

She's drawn to give back because she knows she and her husband, Carl, a retired vice president at 3M, have had a good life. He's held a number of board positions on local nonprofits, and she has been an active participant in charities for five decades.

She doesn't have to do any of it. Many people her age, or far younger, would prefer passing the hours enjoying the lakeshore view from the back deck of the Kuhrmeyers' idyllic home. Instead, she's getting into her car at 6:30 a.m. to beat the traffic.

It's a righteous path, one that leads her through the leafy roads of North Oaks, past the country club, past the formerly gated community's "No Trespassing" sign, and on to a bustling metropolitan hospital.

She wants to help others, strangers, even if it's through the small gift of letting an exhausted mother know her newborn is in good hands.

"We've been very fortunate," Kuhrmeyer says.

So have the thousands of babies she's rocked back to sleep. 0x00E7