What I remember most when my son was born at Mercer Medical Center in Trenton (now Capital Health at Mercer) 15 years ago was the refrigerator full of pudding and the nice Jamaican woman who came and mopped the floor every morning.

But down the hall, I knew, was one of those secret places on this earth where great work is going on, quiet important work that nobody knows about. There tiny living creatures are being watched 24/7, some no bigger than a doll. Many would fit in the palm of your hand. Machines track their temperature, pump air into their lungs, and feed them through a tube. There is tape across their mouths and noses to hold the oxygen tubes in place.

But peeking out of their swaddled blankets, unmarred by the wires and tubes, are tiny faces no bigger than the circle your coffee cup makes when you put it down on your desk. Their eyelids are almost translucent; you can count every eyelash. Their hands, like baby starfish, open and close. Their feet and legs, like little frogs’ legs, pump and jerk as if about to jump into the water.

This is the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), the only Level 3 NICU in central Jersey outside of New Brunswick. In 2007 the NICU had its smallest patient ever, a baby girl named Tamera, born at 25 weeks gestation, who weighed a scant 325 grams (roughly 11 1/2 ounces). Today she is a healthy three-year-old. The medical staff, which includes 24/7 in-house obstetrical, neonatal, anesthesiology, and midwifery coverage, four board-certified neonatalogists, one neonatal nurse practitioners, and dozens of nurses, ensure the approximately 300 preemies a year who are welcomed into the world through these doors make it safely home, even if it takes weeks or months.

As you would imagine, it is a place full of state-of-the-art technology, tubes that bubble, machines that beep. But if you look closely, you can see it’s still a nursery, right down to the puppy wallpaper border. Above every miniature crib and isolette (incubator) is a name card handmade by Mary Bell, one of the NICU nurses, the letters decorated with beads and sequins, bordered in colorful rick-rack, glitter, and ribbon. And on every baby’s head is a hand-knit cap made by volunteers and Girl Scouts. The isolettes are covered with donated fleece baby blankets to keep out the light, the cribs cushioned with handmade baby quilts patterned with baby ducks, toy trains, or big polka dots.

In Room 1 are the babies under four pounds, medically fragile, many very sick, who are on all types of ventilators and supplemental oxygen and IV fluid, and are fed and medicated through tubes. When they pass the four pound mark and are more stable and progressing from tube feedings to learning how to take a bottle, they graduate to Room 2 and a hospital crib.

The moms, naturally, can’t be there 24/7. Some have a child or children at home. Sometimes with preemie twins, one can go home and the other has to stay, so the mom has to go back and forth. The nurse to baby ratio is one to three. So what happens at feeding time or if all three start crying? Someone who looks like a nurse — same black scrubs, white tee, and pink jacket — but isn’t, steps in. If it’s a Tuesday night, that would be Nancy Schumacher, a volunteer.

“I just want to put one (of those babies) in my bag every night,” says Schumacher. “I would take them all home with me if I could.” She has arranged her schedule as an administrative assistant at Cardinal Partners, a medical and life sciences venture capital firm on Nassau Street, so that she can leave at 4:45 p.m. on Tuesdays and get to the NICU in time for the first evening feeding at 5:30 p.m. She stays through the second evening feeding at 9:30 p.m. She works exclusively in Room 2; volunteers are not allowed to work in Room 1.

Remarkably, Schumacher says Tuesdays — in which she works all day, then spends four and a half hours at the hospital — “are the only days I don’t feel tired.”

She says all the babies love to be held. “It’s a peaceful feeling. You really feel like you’re nurturing something, the fact that you know you can pick them up and they stop crying, that you can calm them down. The nurses are always saying I’m really good with them.”

She is so experienced now that she can change the babies, give them a bath, or fix their bottle if they’re bottle feeding. Parents often mistake her for a nurse.

On a recent Tuesday night, a mom in Room 2 is sitting in a rocking chair holding her infant son, feeding him a bottle; later, she and a nurse give him a bath, which in the NICU is more of a wipe-down with antiseptic towelettes. And, like all newborns who hate to be naked, the baby, tiny but feisty, wrestles and squirms until the show is over and those warm swaddling blankets are wrapped around him once more.

Across the room Schumacher changes our cover baby Lillian’s diaper, a Pampers preemie size small, no bigger than a playing card. The nurse tells me Lillian weighs four pounds, nine ounces. She’s gained seven ounces since being born. Once Schumacher wraps her back up, Lillian happily takes a blue pacifier; its edges reach clear across her tiny face. Her bottom nestled in the palm of Schumacher’s hand, Lillian settles in for a good lie-down. Her head barely reaches Schumacher’s elbow.

Lillian’s mom, Lisa Rohr, a fifth grade teacher in Freehold Township, was on eight week’s bedrest before Lillian was born on November 18, six weeks early. Lisa comes every day between 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. She also has a three-and-a-half-year-old son at home. Her husband, Chuck, is manager of farmland preservation for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.

Next door in Room 1, a mom named Daisy, partially hidden behind a curtained screen, is lying with her three-week-old, two-pound, twelve-and-a-half-ounce baby, Teddy Jr. (still connected to his breathing apparatus and medical tubes), skin to skin, on her chest. That’s kangaroo care, a technique developed in a hospital in Colombia that ran out of isolettes. Kangaroo care has been proven to help premature babies thrive better, bond better, gain weight faster, and sleep longer and to increase their mothers’ milk supply.

Across the room a nurse lifts a fleece blanket to reveal Valentina, who, the nurse proudly points out, was born on November 9 at 2 pounds, 13 ounces. Now 3 pounds, 10 ounces, Valentina has been taken off her CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine today and can breathe on her own. That’s a big benchmark for a person who’s no wider than an iPad and almost as thin. Her twin sister, Kamila, in the next isolette, is not yet breathing on her own.

Growing up in the Bronx, Schumacher, who turned 60 this year, says, “I wanted 25 babies.” Right out of the gate, I can tell she’s all about babies: when I ask about siblings, she says matter-of-factly, as if ticking off items on a shopping list, that she has “one sister, two years younger, we were both born on March 8, I was late and my sister was early.”

She grew up in the days when kids were told to go out to play and not come home until the streetlights came on. Her father was a manager for an insurance company in Manhattan, and once Schumacher and her sister went to school, her mom went back to work, first for the Container Corporation of America, which made boxes, and then as a switchboard operator at Richardson Vicks. Schumacher has vivid memories of riding the subway to work with her mom on days off from school and watching all the ladies push and pull the wires in and out of the switchboard.

By the time she was a teenager all her mother’s friends had younger children. “I was always the one holding the infant the entire time,” she says. Married at 23 to a cinematographer who traveled frequently, Schumacher lived on Manhattan’s east side and found herself with nothing to do. She signed up with a nanny agency, working as a temp in two-week stints for families whose permanent nannies were on vacation or hadn’t arrived yet. “That whole world blew my mind. These moms would have their babies in Manhattan, I would meet them at the hospital, and they would take me home to their giant houses in New Jersey. I took care of the baby 24/7. If they had company, they would say, dress up the baby and take him down.”

She had her first baby, Bryan, at age 28. She and her husband divorced when Bryan was one, and Schumacher went back to school to become a dental assistant. “Bryan went to the nice Chinese lady next door.”

She started working in Queens and met her second husband, Howard Schumacher, through her sister. She had two more children, Jennifer, now 27 and working for BlackRock, and James, now 21, a junior at NJIT. Bryan is a stage manager in Florida.

She stopped at three babies. Her last, James, was born when she was 39, but she still craved her “baby fix.” The couple moved to East Windsor in 1991 at the urging of Schumacher’s brother-in-law, and Howard went back to school for computers. Today he is a technology consultant for Hewlett Packard Enterprise Services on the Bristol-Myers Squibb account in Pennington.

All along the way, Schumacher continued to be drawn to babies, offering to babysit for free for friends. When her kids were young, she would put them on the school bus and care for a baby down the street, whose mom went back to work. “I love infants. They are so amazing. There should be a button you can push to stop them from growing,” says Schumacher.

Eleven years ago she got a temp job at Cardinal Partners, and never left. In April, 2008, a friend told her about the NICU at Capital Health. She applied, was accepted, and took the half-day training with a NICU nurse, then shadowed another seasoned NICU volunteer until she was greenlighted to work on her own with the babies. In addition to holding, feeding, and bathing the babies, she also helps keep the stock of clean blankets folded, organizes donated baby clothing and picks out outfits for the babies. She makes sure each baby station is stocked, and checks supplies like coffee, tea, cookies, and milk in the Ronald McDonald Family Room, a special waiting room, like a living room, for families of the infants, underwritten by grants from Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Philadelphia Region.

“Our NICU volunteers are very important to the health and well-being of the babies of our patients in our NICU,” says Naheed Aberdin, a neonatologist at Capital Health. “They help the babies feel calm and secure, recreating the environment of the parent and infant when perhaps they cannot be here to hold their baby themselves.”

Schumacher says most parents are very appreciative, knowing their baby is being held and cared for when they can’t be there. She admits to getting attached to some babies, particularly those who are there for several weeks; the tiniest babies are there for two or even three months. Since Capital Health is a Level 3 NICU, they not only take premature babies but also at-risk babies, those born to mothers who are drug addicts. These babies, who are being weaned off drugs, are the ones Schumacher often gets attached to and sometimes spends her whole evening with. “If they’re cranky, I hold them and play with them.”

Schumacher plans to increase her volunteer time in the NICU “if I ever retire,” she says. Next on her to-do list is to learn basic Spanish so she can talk to the moms who don’t speak English. She says the nurses constantly thank her. But Schumacher insists, “I should be thanking them for letting me be there.”

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