One Town’s Entire Police Force Stepped Up to Help Care for a Premature Baby

They called it "the cuddle watch."

Police officers cradle premature baby.Courtesy Aurora Police Department
An Aurora police officer taking her turn cradling Axel

Axel Winch was born nearly 13 weeks prematurely, and the doctors didn’t think he’d make it. He weighed two pounds, 12 ounces and had bleeding in his brain, a hole in his heart, scoliosis, and vision and hearing problems. After a week in the hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado, where parents Melissa and Adam Winch live, he developed a life-threatening intestinal condition. Doctors decided to airlift Axel and Melissa more than 200 miles to neonatal intensive care at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora.

Axel stabilized, but his health remained precarious over the next few weeks as his lungs and lymphatic system shut down. “There were many times we didn’t think he was going to live,” Adam told Today. “He would die in our arms, and the nurses would scramble to revive him.” Learn some surprising facts you never knew about newborn babies.

The roller-coaster ride felt even more frightening because the family was a four-and-a-half-hour drive from home. Fortunately, backup was on the way. Melissa, 39, is a police officer in Grand Junction, and Adam, 46, is a former officer who now owns a defense training company. The police department in Grand Junction contacted officers they knew in Aurora and said, “Hey, you need to check on one of our people,” Adam recalls.

Soon, members of the Aurora police department flooded the Winches with offers of help. One brought them banana bread. A detective gave the couple a place to stay. Others showed up at the hospital to coo over Axel. “We were overwhelmed with the support from people we didn’t know,” Adam says. “It was the blue family.” Learn these 45 secrets police officers wish you knew.

But then things got tough again. After weeks of caring for Axel in Aurora, the couple had to briefly return to Grand Junction on two separate occasions. First, their house had been under contract when Axel arrived, and they had to move out in two days when it sold. The second time, Melissa’s leave had run out, so she had to return to work for a few days. They hated having to abandon their son, who had improved but was still facing further surgeries. Melissa cried the whole way back to Grand Junction. “We were afraid he was going to die while we were gone,” Adam says.

But the blue family came through again. Aurora police sergeant Mike Pitrusu set up a schedule for his officers to spend time with Axel—morning, afternoon, and night—when his parents couldn’t be there. “I didn’t want him to be alone,” Pitrusu told 9NEWS. Somebody dubbed it “the cuddle watch.” More than 20 officers pitched in, reading to Axel, singing Elvis songs, and cradling him as his health slowly improved. They texted the parents photos of themselves asleep with Axel, updates from the nurses—even reports on Axel’s diapers. “It meant the world to us,” Adam told KKCO NBC 11 News.

It meant the world to the cops too. A detective who was traumatized by the horrific cases she had seen in child protection said “her soul was heavy from dealing with the most terrible things on the job,” Adam told the BBC. “She said that the cuddle watch healed her.”

After four months in the hospital, Axel was strong enough to go home. He can see now, has recovered some hearing, and grew into “almost a normal, healthy baby,” Adam says. “We’re just seeing miracle after miracle.”

There was, however, one condition from his time in the hospital that Axel can’t shake, Melissa told 9NEWS. “He just wants to be held all the time now.” And who could resist him? For more irresistible cuteness, check out these photos that a hospital took of premature babies “graduating” from the NICU.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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Jen McCaffery
Jen McCaffery is an associate editor for Reader’s Digest. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Prevention, Rhode Island Monthly, and other publications and websites. When she’s not writing or editing, she’s growing veggies or trying to figure out the way home from assorted trails.