'ICU Grandpa' Who Cuddled and Soothed Sick Babies Dies from Cancer: 'Incredible Legend'

"I came to love it, but not just because of the connection with the babies, but the whole atmosphere of the hospital," David Deutchman told PEOPLE in 2017

David Deutchman. Photo: Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

David Deutchman, the beloved “ICU grandpa” who spent the last 14 years cuddling babies in the NICU at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, died on Saturday of pancreatic cancer. He was 86.

The hospital confirmed Deutchman’s death in a statement to PEOPLE, and praised the Atlanta man for the many years of comfort he provided its littlest occupants.

“Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta extends its deepest sympathy to the family of David Deutchman,” the statement read. “David was a long-time volunteer in the pediatric and neonatal intensive care unit at Scottish Rite for 14 years, providing support to many patients and their families. The Children's family will never forget this incredible legend and the countless lives he touched.”

Deutchman was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer in late October, and died just two and a half weeks later, his daughter Susan Lilly told Today Parents.

“None of us expected to get such a dire diagnosis,” Lilly told the outlet. “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.”

To celebrate his legacy, Children’s Healthcare arranged a drive-by parade outside Deutchman’s home shortly before his death, complete with a NICU transport truck and helicopter.

Deutchman’s story first went viral in 2017, and at the time, he told PEOPLE that he volunteered at the hospital twice a week to hold and comfort babies in the neonatal intensive care unit.

He said he took up volunteering upon his retirement from a long career in international business marketing.

“It is very gratifying, not just because the babies are crying and you help them to stop crying,” Deutchman said. “There are a lot of benefits to that warm connection of being held — when a baby puts their face against your heartbeat, there’s a benefit there. I came to love it, but not just because of the connection with the babies, but the whole atmosphere of the hospital.”

He added that his efforts for comfort and connection spread to the babies’ mothers, too, as they often needed a hand to hold.

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“There’s a lot of stress for these parents,” he said. “Having somebody tell them they can go get breakfast and assure them I’ll be there with their baby, it means something to them. It’s important.”

Lilly likened her father to a clergy member or social worker, telling Today that he was a confidant for everyone — even the nurses.

“He said, on so many occasions, ‘I don’t know how much people realize how much more I get out of this than what I put in,’” she said. “[He’d say] ‘You know, I get feedback from families how much they appreciate me, but I appreciate them.’”

Deutchman is reportedly survived by Ronnie, his wife of 58 years, daughters Susan Lilly and Jill Deutchman, and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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