Cassandra Hall and her husband, Seth, had talked it over: they’d have one more child and call it good. But fate had other plans for the young Kalispell couple.
“There’s one …. and there’s the other one,” an ultrasound tech told Hall.
“And I was like whoa, back up,” she recalled with a smile.
Their world changed in that moment, and a few months later, it changed again.
Their twin boys, Judah and Jedidiah, were born early — at 35 weeks and two days to be exact — prompting their admission into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Kalispell Regional Medical Center in early October. Judah required supplemental oxygen, while his brother’s condition was deteriorating due to an infection acquired in the womb.
“I think he was almost a week before I was allowed to hold him,” Hall said. “… You can’t even touch them.”
Rules are different in the NICU. Sometimes parents, like the Halls, can’t even pick up their child until they meet certain benchmarks. Some babies are placed in isolettes — see-through incubators to help regulate the infant’s body temperatures with wires and tubes attached to their small forms.
Caring for these lightweight newborns can be an intimidating prospect.
To help parents of NICU newborns, the hospital has partnered with the Hope Family Resource Center in Kalispell which offers an incentive learning program, where parents can earn “Baby Bucks” in exchange for reading educational brochures, engaging in skin-to-skin contact with their babies or going to classes held in the hospital. The center’s parent organization, Hope Family Ministries, also runs Clear Choice Clinic which offers pregnancy tests along with free and low-cost testing for sexual transmitted infections.
Participants in the Earn While You Learn Program rack up vouchers and exchange them at the Hope Family Resource Center, located at 940 First Ave. E., for baby items ranging from formula and diapers to cribs and high chairs.
“We’ve had moms that have gone all the way through age 2 and never had to buy diapers,” said hospital social worker Jesse Blanc, who helps link parents with the program. Parents can continue earning credits to spend at the Baby Boutique after leaving the hospital by attending well-child visits, parenting classes and completing homework provided by the center.
“Studies have shown that families and babies do better when families are engaged. The NICU is a terrifying experience — nobody wants to be there; nobody expects to be there,” Blanc explained. “So we want to make it as normalized as possible for our families and make them as comfortable and as involved in their baby’s care as they can be. One of ways we found to do that is to incentivize parenting.”
Thus far this year, 46 parents participated in the resource center’s Learn While You Earn Program at the hospital and another 138 were seen at the center’s in-town location. The program comes at no cost to parents and is entirely donor-funded.
Executive director of Hope Pregnancy Ministries Michelle Reimer said the program made its way into the NICU about a year and a half ago after a neonatologist approached the organization looking for a way to encourage parents to bond with their NICU babies.
“There are a lot of parents that didn’t know how to engage with their babies because it was scary (in the NICU),” Reimer said. “These lessons are kind of a bridge.”
And the results are tangible.
“They’re taking their kids home earlier, less of those kids are going into foster care,” said director of Hope Family Resource Center Debbie Otto. “They are engaging. It’s been a real, huge deal for them.”
Hall said earning Baby Bucks in exchange for caring for her boys and learning has been rewarding.
“The brochures that they have, I did a few and my husband did a few, those are really cool,” Hall said. “There was one on managing stress and parenting, so of course in this situation, that was super helpful.”
For resource center staff, the Earn While You Learn program is also about lifting up parents.
“It’s just empowering for those parents to feel that they’re doing something to move forward with the care of their newborn,” Reimer said.
To learn more about Hope Family Resource Center visit www.hopepregnancyministries.org, or call (406) 257-6006.
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.