When a group of Colorado cops heard a heartbroken fellow officer and her husband would have to leave their premature baby in the NICU to return to work, they formed a round-the-clock team to assure the newborn wouldn’t be alone.
Police officer Melissa Winch was admitted to the hospital after her water broke when she was 26-weeks pregnant with her son, Axel. As she recovered under the care of doctors, she developed an infection that threatened the lives of both her and her son, and she underwent an emergency cesarean section, giving birth to Axel at just 29-weeks on July 24—almost 11-weeks before his due date. Though Melissa and her husband, Adam, were frightened about the risks, they were faced with a “no choice” situation.
“There was a lot of bad news and they prepared us for the fact that Axel may or may not live through the next couple days,” Adam, 45, of Grand Junction, Colorado, tells PEOPLE. “If he did live, he may have a lifetime of surgeries, pain, immobility and all sorts of disabilities. It was very likely that if he lived the next couple of weeks, he would have a very short lifespan.”
Doctors told the couple that Axel—who was born weighing 2 lbs. 12 oz.—had numerous problems with his bone structure, and may have been born blind and deaf. For the first week of his life, Axel stayed at the local NICU center in Grand Junction until doctors believed he developed a life-threatening condition called necrotizing enterocolitis that affected his intestines. On Aug. 1, Axel was life-flighted to Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora, almost 250 miles away, for an emergency operation.
Though Axel recovered before doctors felt they needed to perform the invasive surgery, he later underwent a series of other procedures to his tiny body. The ordeal was strenuous for the couple—Melissa and Adam spent weeks at the hospital to be with their son as he fought to survive. But as time passed, the two came to the point where they had to return to work—Melissa as an officer back in Grand Junction, and Adam as the head of his own defense training company.
“We were at the hospital pretty much every day until we had to leave. His medical condition was so complex that we were constantly making decisions on different procedures and surgeries and different things that were happening with him,” Adam says. “When babies are so young like that, they need that constant touch and sound of their parents and it helps them recover. They need love. Constant touching and love.”
When a local sergeant in Aurora heard that Melissa and Adam had to leave, he rallied officers at the Aurora Police Department to send officers volunteer to the Children’s Hospital to spend their free time with Axel in the NICU. The ‘Cuddle Watch’, as they called it, used a sign-up sheet to schedule out officers who would take shifts to make sure Axel was never alone for too long.
“Boy, I tell you, it was heartening in a way you can’t describe. We were living through months of terror, watching this kid struggle to make it, literally having to fight for his life,” Adam says. “We knew there were all sorts of bad things that could happen. But it was something else knowing he had the constant human touch from those officers and the love of people coming in and spending time with him.”
The Cuddle Watch volunteers spent time singing songs and reading books to Axel, and off-duty night cops would even spend time with him during the day so he could fall asleep on their chests. The benefits were two-fold: Axel was getting the love and attention, and the Cuddle Watch could send updates to Melissa and Adam to let them know how their son was doing.
“They’d send us pictures to let us know what was going on, how his diapers were and how he acted,” Adam recalls. “They also told us what they enjoyed and what they pulled from it. They constantly kept us updated.”
While Adam admits leaving Axel was the hardest thing the couple had to do, these police officers—many of whom they did not know—were there to offer the help they needed at one of the most difficult points in their lives.
“They were people who demonstrated so much love and kindness—it was just a comfort we could not replace,” Adam says. “It spoke the world to us, it brought a comfort we don’t know how to describe.”
Axel left the hospital on Nov. 11, and the happy parents were overjoyed to finally bring their first child home.
“Boy, it’s just Heaven to have him home and not be in a hospital,” Adam says. “Being a father is incredible, and he just has one great mom here that does a wonderful job.”