Hannah Fluhler wants the crying to stop.

Because of a first-of-its kind fellowship, the Honors College student is assembling a research team to determine if soothing lullaby music combined with gentle rocking will aid newborns suffering from drug withdrawal.

Hannah is proposing a pilot study to be conducted in the neonatal intensive care unit at Indiana University Health Ball Memorial Hospital in Muncie after approval by research oversight committees. The study hopes to examine the effects of movement and music therapy for these tiniest victims of the opioid crisis.

Hannah Fluhler

A key tool proposed for Hannah’s study is the mamaRoo swing. Based at IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital, her research team will monitor infants’ vital signs to assess the beneficial effects of soothing lullaby music combined with gentle rocking. (Photo by Dawn Brand Fluhler, ’10)

“Unfortunately, there are so many children born to a parent who took something like heroin, alcohol, or opioids while pregnant, which leads to health problems called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome,” said Hannah, who is majoring in nursing and an individualized major in pre-dance/movement therapy. “It is heartbreaking to see a newborn trembling in pain and potentially suffering for years from various health-related issues.”

After a feeding, researchers propose to place infants in a mamaRoo swing as the lullabies play, and then observe if an infant’s heart rate and oxygen saturation normalized, among other assessments.

‘Great potential’

So far there has been no published research on whether this type of treatment helps, Hannah said. “This work has great potential to impact newborns both locally and nationally.”

Her long-term goal is to become a neonatologist, caring and advocating for babies with complex medical diseases and disorders. She is a lifelong Muncie resident and a graduate of Burris Laboratory School.

“My interest in helping infants started a few years ago when I was babysitting a little girl with a very rare disease,” Hannah said. “I quickly realized that life will not improve for these infants until we do research that will lead to better applications.”

The project is the first to be funded by the James S. Ruebel Honors Fellowship for Innovative Experiences, named in honor of Dr. Ruebel, who served as dean of the Honors College from 2000 until his death in 2016. Established with a generous gift from the Edmund F. and Virginia B. Ball Foundation and supplemented by gifts from several other donors, the fund will eventually support several students each year as they pursue a distinctive international or innovative community experience, or perhaps an experience that combines both elements.

Creating a team

Playing the role of consultant on Hannah’s project is Renee Twibell, MA ’84, a Ball State nursing professor who also serves as nurse researcher at IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital.

She believes Hannah’s research project has the potential to be groundbreaking.

“Hannah is pulling together a research team from a variety of fields, which ensures we will have a strong study,” said Dr. Twibell, who teaches in the master’s and doctoral nursing programs at Ball State. “Creating this team is impressive for an undergraduate because few students that young have the relational and communication skills to reach out to the right people. It will be quite an experience to be a support for Hannah as this project unfolds.”

James S. Ruebel

The new research fellowship honors James S. Ruebel, who served as Honors College dean from 2000 until his death in 2016. As a freshman, Hannah Fluhler was part of a three-term, integrated exploration of major intellectual, artistic, and cultural achievements co-taught by Ruebel.

At IU Health Ball, the nursing team is also impressed with the undergraduate. “Hannah has presented her project at each necessary nursing committee and to the appropriate nurses and physicians in our NICU,” said Carla Cox, vice president and chief nursing officer, IU Health East Central Region. “This research topic is relevant, and we are eager to support her project.”

John Emert, Honors College dean, said he was not surprised that Hannah’s project was chosen as the first to be funded by the James Ruebel Honors Fellowship. “She has been an active Honors College student during her time at Ball State University,” he said. “In her interactions she exhibits an uncommon thoughtfulness and sensitivity toward others. These skills will prove invaluable in her future health career.”

Dr. Emert said Hannah was part of the Honors College’s three-term, integrated exploration of the major intellectual, artistic, and cultural achievements of humankind that was co-taught by Ruebel. “Even as a first-year student, she anticipated and contributed to class conversations without being overbearing or forceful,” Dr. Emert said. “According to Jim, such a sincere desire toward understanding was likewise reflected in Hannah’s journal entries and other written work.

“Hannah demonstrates a distinctively passionate and knowledgeable perspective of higher education and its potential to positively impact our community. I think Jim would have been proud.”