Bud Sears’ wife had been ill for a long time before she died in 2013. He had been at her side the whole time.
And then his wife of 54 years was gone.
“After she passed, there was just a void,” said Sears, who was retired after a career as a supervisor of division engineering at Allegheny Energy.
He was looking for something to fill that void. A friend at church one Sunday said a local hospital was looking for volunteers to rock babies.
“I said, ‘Rock babies? Really? Isn’t that something.’”
It was, indeed, something. And it has been something the 82-year-old Charleston native has done ever since at Thomas Memorial Hospital, in South Charleston.
Three days a week, he arrives at the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. He’s there for six to eight hours. He might help with other chores, like answering the phone or running diapers to another ward.
But, most of the time, he is in a rocking chair, a blanket draped over one shoulder, cooing to a tiny, swaddled baby not much bigger than a loaf of bread.
He is the go-to volunteer rocker of babies born early and in need of constant comfort.
“This Bud’s for you,” he joked to one of the NICU nurses one day recently after entering the ward.
Manning his post, he chats to the babies, singing hymns and children’s songs, his voice ranging from a warm chesty rumble to a high-pitched falsetto when he speaks to them.
“Do you know that song?” he said to one infant after a round of “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” “I used to sing that to my little babies and my grandchildren. You got a boyfriend?”
Sears will soon have a more comfortable perch from which to rock babies. Funds from a Rock Your Little Black Dress fundraiser held earlier this year by the The Foundation for Thomas Health will bring new rockers to the ward. It’s part of the foundation’s mission to fill in the gaps that so often exist between a health community’s wants and its needs.
The NICU is home to babies born early and in need of extra care, as well as those who are born addicted or with fetal alcohol syndrome from a mother’s drug use or alcohol abuse. Babies affected in this way can be inconsolable at times and in need of a lot of touch and comfort.
“It’s sad to say — some of their mothers just leave them,” Sears said.
Sears said he does what he can to console the babies placed in his arms.
“They cry. I try to reassure them spiritually that their life will be fine, that they’ll be good,” he said. “God will take care of them.”
And so, too, will the nurses and doctors on the ward, whom Sears praises effusively.
“Let me tell you about the quality of nurses,” he said. “Thomas has top quality nurses. The nurses take care of those babies very professionally, as if they were their own children.
“You can imagine working a 12-hour shift with babies crying and pooping and peeing 12 hours day,” he said.
He takes care of the nurses in his own way. At the same fundraiser that raised money for the new rocking chairs, Sears bid on an eight-course gourmet meal, sneaking in a winning bid in the last five seconds.
He gave the dinner away to the NICU nurses.
Sears has told the nurses he’s on call.
“I tell them, ‘If you get 20 babies in there and you need me to come, call me. And I can be there in 20 minutes.’ And they have called me a couple of times, and it makes me feel good.”
Rocking babies all week is good for the babies, to be sure, he said.
“It’s good to talk to the babies,” he said. “They don’t understand what you’re saying, but they can feel it. They like to be held.”
And he likes to be the one doing the holding, he added.
“I think it is more therapy for me than it those children,” he said. “I receive more than I give.”