For nearly 15 years, David Deutchman – also known as “ICU Grandpa” – hugged babies in the neonatal intensive care unit and played with ailing toddlers as a volunteer at Children’s Healthcare in Atlanta. His efforts to help overwhelmed parents and sick children went viral several years ago; people loved to hear about his kindness to others when they needed it most.
Deutchman died at the age of 86 on November 14, just two and a half weeks after being diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. His family may not believe he is gone, but they say they know his legacy will live on for years to come.
“Volunteering definitely enriched his life,”
“He had a very successful business career, and I have never heard him speak with such great appreciation and love for what he did at any time during his 41 years with the company, as if he were talking about his commitment to the people of the hospital.”
Deutchman began volunteering after retiring from a marketing career. He found that he had too much free time and wanted to be busy. One day he was at a rehab facility nearby when he saw Children’s Healthcare in Atlanta and came in to see if he could volunteer. After some training, his second act as “ICU grandfather” began. While families often sought him out because he was so popular, he felt like he was the one who got the most out of his time there.
“He said many times on many occasions, ‘I do not know how many people are aware of how much more I get out of this than what I put in,’ ‘Lilly said. “(He will say) ‘You know I get feedback from families how much they value me, but I appreciate them.'”
Deutchman loved holding the babies or playing with the older children, his daughter said. He understood that exhausted parents and families benefited from knowing he was there.
“The emotional support he was primarily able to provide mothers, but also many of fathers and extended family members, brothers, sisters, grandmothers, grandparents, (was important). He was almost like a pastor or a social worker, ”Lilly said. “Even the nurses trusted him.”
Volunteering inspired and motivated him.
“This was definitely a new purpose for him and something that definitely enriched his life,” Lilly said. “It brought us great joy to see him have that influence. Why not share his love with people who could use it at their most vulnerable times? ”
Deutchman often kept an eye on babies and their families for years. If they returned to the hospital, he would try to visit them.
“He wanted to go back (to the hospital) even though it was not during one of his days that he volunteered – especially if they were to have a specific procedure,” Lilly said. “He went in and held their hands or held them.”
When Deutchman turned 85 in November 2019, his energy began to wane and he was considering retiring from the volunteer position he loved so much. Then the COVID-19 pandemic began and the volunteer program was put on hold, allowing for a natural exit. As the months went by, he became weaker before visiting his doctor on October 27 to get some answers.
The next day he learned that he had metastatic cancer of the pancreas. Doctors encouraged him to start hospice care.
“None of us expected to get such a serious diagnosis,” Lilly said. “He made it very clear to all his loved ones and even his friends that he feels grateful to have lived a full and rich life.”
Before his death, Children’s Healthcare in Atlanta organized a parade to cheer Deutchman and his family up.
“We appreciate the outpouring of support,” Lilly said.
Deutchman is survived by his wife of 58 years, Ronnie; his daughters, Susan Lilly and Jill Deutchman; and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Lilly said she and her sister were not surprised that their father was so popular with the families at the hospital. He has always been a good listener.
Lilly decided to take after her father and become a volunteer emergency medical technician. She said she believes others can also learn from her father’s example.
“Anyone can have a purpose at any point in their lives,” she said. “It was perhaps surprising to him how much he got out of this. Volunteering and serving others is deeply rewarding. ”
An earlier version of this story was first published in TODAY.com.