PHILADELPHIA >> While cuddling infants in the neonatal intensive care unit at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children or comforting families there in oncology, Michael Cray will often turn to his son, Ian, for help.
“I ask him, ‘What should I do?’” Cray said.
Ian Cray took his last breath at St. Christopher’s in 2001 at age 9, due to complications from cystic fibrosis. He would be 31 today, and his dad thinks he’d be an author and adventurer who’s been arrested (twice!) for hang gliding over the president’s motorcade.
“He knew what life was about,” Cray said. “He got it.”
But because Ian isn’t here to write the stories he was meant to or experience the adventures he should have, his dad is at St. Christopher’s, volunteering to make the lives of the kids, parents and staff there a little easier.
“Some people want to golf if they win the lottery,” he said. “I just want to do this.”
Cray, 60, of Mount Laurel, started volunteering at the North Philly hospital two years after Ian died because he couldn’t live with the thought of his son’s death being for nothing.
“I said, ‘This is going to hurt, this has to count. All that stuff we went through, something good better come out of it,’” he recalled.
Twenty years later, Cray is among the longest-tenured volunteers at St. Christopher’s, where he spends 14 hours a week holding infants, playing with long-term child patients and helping families navigate some of the most difficult times of their lives.
“Our friends always ask, ‘After the stuff that happened to your family, why would you want to get deeper into medicine?’ and it’s a valid question,” Cray said. “It’s a lot easier to do brave things when you’re around brave people. And who is braver than a kid?”
Cray also cares for the caregivers, checking in on the doctors and nurses, sewing blankets and doing dishes.
Last Friday, as Cray picked up 5-month-old Mason in the NICU and cradled him in his arms, the infant quieted, wrapped his hand around Cray’s finger and looked straight into his eyes.
“I love when they lock on like that,” Cray said.
Out of 74 active volunteers at St. Christopher’s, Cray is one of only four who work in the NICU “Cuddler Program,” providing babies whose parents aren’t able to be on-site with the human contact necessary for development, said Sharon Leonardo, a NICU charge nurse.
“These volunteers are very trusted by us,” she said. “The NICU group is a very protective group, and it takes a lot to get our trust to hold the babies.”
Dina Melchiorre, director of volunteer services at St. Christopher’s, said Cray always goes “above and beyond,” accepting any assignment given, from mentoring new volunteers to wrapping Christmas presents.
“To come back and want to give back because of the care you received, I think there’s no higher honor than for all of us to work with somebody who’s been on both sides and continues to give,” she said.
Cray, an electrical engineer for Microchip Technology, and his wife of 37 years, Sharon, had three children: David, Ian and Mara.
“Our kids are so Animaniacs,” Cray said, referring to the popular 1990s children’s cartoon. “We called them Yakko, Wakko and Dot.”
Ian was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at 2 and began receiving care at St. Christopher’s. Mara, who was born five years after Ian, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at birth and spent 11 days in the NICU, where Cray now volunteers.
Today, thanks to new medications, Cray said, Mara is a “radiant” 26-year-old working in communications. His elder son, who has a daughter, is a 34-year-old veterinarian in Florida.
Cray said he’s seen many incredible families fall apart after the death of a child. He credits his wife, who was an advocate for their kids and now volunteers in patient advocacy for others, with getting them through.
“We were the lucky low percentage who became foxhole buddies, Sharon and I,” he said. “We became closer, because you don’t want to let the other person down.”
During his 20 years volunteering at St. Christopher’s, Cray has taken only two breaks: once, for four years when his daughter was very sick and he couldn’t risk exposing her to pathogens he may have brought home, and 15 months during the height of COVID-19.
“My first day back I was weeping, I was so happy,” he said.
Cray is now learning sign language and Spanish, and hopes to become a certified interpreter to help non-English-speaking families better communicate with staff overseeing their child’s care.
He’s also joining Big Brothers Big Sisters to officially become a mentor to an 11-year-old long-term patient at St. Christopher’s.
Cray hopes Ian would be proud that his dad is caring for others in his honor.
“I think I’m not letting him down,” he said. “The last thing Ian ever said on this earth was to thank his mom for taking care of him.”
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