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In the arms of love: volunteer baby cuddler helps preemie infants thrive

David Young, 60, Air Mobility Command current operations air mobility analyst and retired Air Force pilot, holds the premature grandson of a retired Air Force member while in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, April 19, 2019. Young has been a volunteer for the hospital’s “cuddler program” for a year and a half. He has eight children of his own and was interested in the program because his youngest child, now 17 years old, was born eight weeks early. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Miranda Simpson)

David Young, Air Mobility Command current operations air mobility analyst and retired Air Force pilot, holds the premature grandson of a retired Air Force member while in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, April 19, 2019. Young has been a volunteer for the hospital’s “cuddler program” for a year and a half. He has eight children of his own and was interested in the program because his youngest child, now 17 years old, was born eight weeks early. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Miranda Simpson)

David Young, 60, Air Mobility Command current operations air mobility analyst and retired Air Force pilot, proudly stands by a model of a C-5 Galaxy at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., April 30, 2019. Young used to fly the aircraft when he was a pilot, and he helped build the display back when it was first installed. In his free time, Young volunteers in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Miranda Simpson)

David Young, 60, Air Mobility Command current operations air mobility analyst and retired Air Force pilot, proudly stands by a model of a C-5 Galaxy at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., April 30, 2019. Young used to fly the aircraft when he was a pilot, and he helped build the display back when it was first installed. In his free time, Young volunteers in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Miranda Simpson)

David Young, 60, Air Mobility Command current operations air mobility analyst and retired Air Force pilot, offers a pacifier to a premature baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, April 19, 2019. Young participates in a “cuddler program” organized by the hospital to boost the babies’ brain development and increase their overall survival rate. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Miranda Simpson)

David Young, 60, Air Mobility Command current operations air mobility analyst and retired Air Force pilot, offers a pacifier to a premature baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, April 19, 2019. Young participates in a “cuddler program” organized by the hospital to boost the babies’ brain development and increase their overall survival rate. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Miranda Simpson)

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- A quiet and still corridor is safely tucked away at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis. A tender-hearted man scrubs his hands with soapy water before entering one of the dimly lit hideaways.

His bright blue eyes light up when he sees a tiny inhabitant of a clear crib sleeping peacefully, and a sense of tranquility washes over him, because this Neonatal Intensive Care Unit is David Young’s happy place.

“From the day my first son was born I’ve really enjoyed holding babies, and I just love to feel like I’m making a difference for these babies,” said the retired Air Force Lt. Col. with tears forming on his waterline. He looked up to keep the droplets from falling and continued shakily, “I think about what their future could be.”

Young has been a volunteer for the NICU cuddling program for a year and a half, spending five hours every other Friday helping the nurses by holding babies when they need to be held. Volunteers like Young undergo a strict screening and training process to be eligible for the opportunity.

The hospital can house more than 100 premature babies in the NICU at a time, so having volunteers to cuddle them plays a critical role in their care. 

Young explained that many of the babies are fed through a tube and can often spit the food back up, so they need to be held instead of lying flat. Additionally, holding the babies helps with their brain development and increases their overall survival rate.

Young understands the importance of human interaction with premature babies more than most. He has eight children of his own, and his last child was born eight weeks early. She was in the NICU for 3½ weeks at Travis Air Force Base, California, back when he was a C-5 pilot for the Air Force.

“The NICU nurses there were so good to us and our baby, so I’ve always felt appreciative of them,” said Young. “My preemie daughter is now 17,” he continued with a subtle smile. “Now, this is an opportunity for me to help these families, and let them know that we care.”

According to his wife, he is the perfect person for the job.

“David loves babies,” said Mami. “He is well known in our family as ‘the baby whisperer’ because he has always had a gift of calming down crying or fussy babies.”

She also described him as steady and unflappable, which explains why he excels in other areas of his life.

When Young is not volunteering, he is working at Air Mobility Command in current operations as a manager of a program that allocates aircrews and aircraft to where they need to be. He is also going to school full-time and learning how to fly helicopters. He said he is grateful to the Air Force for making it all possible.

“I get to fly and hold babies,” said Young. “Life couldn’t be better!”