Three-year-old Cooper Baltzell has plenty of friends at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.
During his frequent visits to the hospital, Cooper hands out candy to the nurses, hams it up with hospital volunteers and plays in Kyle Rudolph’s End Zone. He’s so well known that staff members often stop to say ‘hi’ to him in the hallways.
Amid a sea of friendly faces, though, one stands out.
“He’s just a cool kid,” said Gregory Watson. “He makes my day.”
Gregory is a 57-year-old environmental services aide at the hospital. For eight years, he has worked at the children’s hospital cleaning patient rooms and nursing staff areas so that the building can be a healing place for families. And in his spare time, he has struck up an unlikely and adorable friendship with Cooper.
“You go way above what your job description probably is,” Cooper’s mom, Ashley Baltzell, told Gregory during a recent meet-up. “He talks about you all the time and loves seeing you.”
Hangouts like the one they held on a Friday afternoon in late March are a regular occurrence for Cooper and Gregory. Both love buttery, movie theater-style popcorn—which they get at the hospital’s Family Resource Center. The center regularly hosts “Popcorn Days,” and pops batches using a mobile popcorn machine.
On Popcorn Days, Cooper and Gregory get a snack, and then take a hand-in-hand stroll through the hospital. It’s familiar territory for Cooper. Shortly after birth, he was diagnosed with Hirschsprung disease, a rare congenital condition affecting the body’s digestive system. He has been hospitalized so many times that his mom Ashley jokes that University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital is the family’s “vacation home.”
But all of that falls by the wayside during Cooper’s time with Gregory. Instead, they crack jokes, steal popcorn, color with crayons, and get in playful wrestling matches. Cooper is a budding extrovert, according to Ashley, and friendships like Gregory’s are vital for his happiness and sense of normalcy.
“You make it a really good experience,” Ashley told Gregory. “He loves it. It’s all about him.”
Gregory takes a more philosophical approach when he reflects on his friendship with Cooper.
“Kids come here sick, and they need all the help they can get,” Gregory said. “If it makes them happy, it makes them happy. It’s just part of the job. I know everybody doesn’t do it, but these kids didn’t ask to be here.”
“For us, this is normal,” Ashley said, gesturing at the hospital around her. “We’re here all the time, and that’s just how our life is. But it’s good to feel like you’re around friends.”