When 6-foot-tall Dennis Piggott rocks the tiny babies in the NICU at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health, he can’t help but think about their future and say a little prayer.
“I tell them everything is going to be all right. God’s promise to that baby is the same as it is to you or me, and I tell the babies that sometimes.”
Piggott, 65, was drawn to the NICU because his own granddaughter spent time there after she was born. She’s a healthy 2-year-old now, but he was moved by the care she received at Riley and decided once she was healthy, he was going to be a NICU volunteer.
But it’s not that easy.
Rocking babies is a coveted volunteer shift. You have to earn that privilege by putting in time somewhere else first.
“I was kind of disappointed,” he admitted, but not for long. “It was one of the best things that happened to me,” he said. That’s because his first placement was in Riley’s Child Life Zone, helping older kids with activities. He did that for six months before he was eligible to move into the NICU rocking chair.
“I just loved it,” he said. “So now I do both.”
That’s right. Piggott, son of longtime Indianapolis radio broadcaster Joe Pickett, spends Thursdays and Fridays at Riley – one day in the Child Life Zone, the other in the NICU.
Child life specialist Kim Ziegler said her team calls Piggott the CLZ ambassador.
“Dennis has such great enthusiasm for the CLZ. He goes above and beyond to make sure that families are aware of activities and events that are happening that day,” she said. “He really sells the space.”
The retired HH Gregg salesman and Navy veteran has been volunteering for about a year now. He starts every shift with a visit to the tiny chapel in the hospital, where he offers a prayer for help in making someone else’s day a little better.
“It makes my week when I come to Riley,” he said. “I look forward to it.”
Just what is it about this place?
It starts with the building itself, Piggott said.
“When you pull up to Riley, it’s like its arms are open.”
And when you go inside, he said, your problems disappear.
“We don’t have problems compared to these kids – and their families. What we get to do is make it better for them.”
Piggott said volunteers like him take their cues from team members, all of whom are special people, he said.
“You never see that this is a job for them.”
No matter their role – nurse, cafeteria worker, physician, physical therapist. “They’re around these kids every day, and they realize there is something special going on.”
Piggott shares one story that illustrates what a special place Riley is. A family came into the Child Life Zone on the Friday after Thanksgiving when Piggott was volunteering. There was no activity in the zone, so Piggott, who was about to leave, greeted them as they were leaving donated gifts on the counter.
He commented on the Notre Dame sweatshirt the man was wearing, which led to more conversation until the man revealed that he and his wife had lost a child at Riley eight years earlier.
“It just broke my heart,” Piggott said, but the man told him they were so touched by the care their son received that they travel from South Bend to Riley every year to bring gifts in his memory.
Instead of just thanking the couple and their two little girls and sending them on their way, Piggott asked if they’d like a picture in front of the big Christmas tree in the lobby. Of course, they agreed.
When he showed the photo to the couple, they decided then and there that it was going to be their Christmas card this year.
“That made my day,” he said. “I’m glad I was there that day.”
-- By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist