MIAMI (AP) - Juan Manfredi is 72, retired, a grandfather with hair as white as a sheet of unblemished paper. But in the corridors of Holtz Children's Hospital at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center, he is a rock star, a celebrity.
“Hey, Grandpa.” one nurse calls out.
“You here today, Grandpa?”
For the past decade, Manfredi has been a volunteer at the hospital, primarily in the pediatric intensive care, oncology and transplant/surgical units. During that time, he has become a recognizable figure in his blue polo shirt with “Grandpa” stitched on the front and a Spider-Man backpack flung over a shoulder.
Three days a week, he drives from his home in Hollywood to brighten the long days of Holtz’s seriously ill children, his iPhone and iPad at the ready.
“There are plenty of toys for them to play with,” he says, with a wry chuckle, “but what they usually ask me for is one of those.” He points to his stash of electronics. “They love the games.”
On this particular Friday, there is no hint of the spring heat in the climate-controlled playroom, but the warmth that surrounds Manfredi and his 3-year-old friend, Armonnie Smith, is palpable. Armonnie is a multi-organ transplant patient who has been in and out of the hospital his entire life. He and Manfredi have developed a strong attachment to each other.
Hair pulled tight on the top of his head, a battery of beeping medical machines in his wake, Armonnie tries to monopolize Manfredi’s attention, saying “he’s funny and he plays with me.”
One of their favorite pastimes is painting. Manfredi dips a long-handled brush into a paint jar and Armonnie mashes the brush on a large sheet of paper, for an effect that is not unlike a Kandinsky abstract.
When two white-robed women appear in the playroom, ready to whisk Armonnie away for a procedure, the boy pleads: “Can you come with me?”
The women shake their head in warning, and Manfredi replies softly. “I can’t. I’m sorry.”
Armonnie shuffles off, chin quivering, eyes darting back to Manfredi again and again.
It’s not easy volunteering with children who are so sick, children in pain, children alone, children who might not make it to the end of the year. “Sometimes it’s too much,” Manfredi admits. “It gets to me. I have to take time off.”
How much time? A week? A month? “Oh, no, no,” he laughs. “No more than a day, and sometimes not even that. I put the jazz very loud in my car, and that helps.”