On Ash Wednesday, Alice Tramontozzi – better known as “Miss Penny” at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where she works as a guest services representative – stood in the chapel, marking ashes on the foreheads of patients and families who weren’t able to go to church.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)
Tramontozzi’s role as a Catholic lay minister is one of many hats she wears at St. Jude, where she’s been providing for families’ emotional and spiritual needs for 14 years.
“I’m very privileged, especially at this stage of my life, to get up every morning and do this,” said Tramontozzi, 73. “It’s not a job; it’s a calling. And I believe that for everybody here, whether they’re washing dishes or they’re saving lives – this is their calling.”
Tramontozzi’s work with St. Jude began in 1998, when her husband was transferred to Memphis to work as general manager at the nearby Marriott hotel. He began donating platelets at St. Jude, and telling his wife – a cancer survivor – about the great work he’d seen there.
“I said, ‘This is meant to be,’” Tramontozzi said.
“I looked back at my journey as a gift. Having been a cancer survivor, I know how important it is to be in a positive atmosphere. I never questioned I’d beat my cancer because everyone around me was so positive and believed, so I did too. So when I had the opportunity to come here, I thought, ‘Now I can be on the other side. I can be a part of nurturing those who are going through this journey.’”
Tramontozzi began volunteering with the children, whom she calls “my heroes – every one of them.”
“St. Jude is very good because they really empower you to do a lot,” she said. “When they see that you really enjoy what you’re doing, the opportunities they give you to volunteer are amazing. I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer in every inpatient unit, which I’ve really loved.”
In 2000, Tramontozzi was urged to apply for an open guest services position in the patient care lobby.
“There really was no formal job description, and I think what really made me feel good was that my job evolved from all of the questions and the needs of the families,” Tramontozzi said.
In 2002, she left her position to help care for her grandson, but she continued to volunteer at St. Jude two days a week because “the kids come to rely on familiar faces and that continuity,” she said.
After St. Jude opened the Chili’s Care Center in 2007, Tramontozzi began filling in on the desk, and her smiling face became the first many patients saw when they entered the building for treatment.
“Every family has a first day,” she said. “I get to look mom and dad in the eye and say, ‘You’ve just come to the best place and you’ve just inherited a whole new family. We’re going to walk through this journey with you.’”
No longer needing to care for her grandchild regularly, Tramontozzi, then in her 60s, was welcomed back on board as a guest services representative, welcoming families to Chili’s Care Center.
When she’s not fielding questions and connecting families with the right resources, Tramontozzi’s usually doing what she calls “the nurturing things.”
“To be able to give a child a warm blanket and a pillow or just to listen to a mom – that to me is the most important part of what we get to do,” she said.
Tramontozzi makes it her mission to bring as much joy and laughter as possible to the hospital.
She’s been known to organize birthday surprises, movies in the lobby and other activities for patients, and when patients and coworkers hear her voice over the intercom, they know something fun is about to happen.
Tramontozzi said the best announcement she ever made was when a patient who’d been in a coma and unable to walk, was able to walk on crutches from the rehab area all the way to the Patient Care Center.
“Every clinic emptied out to see her – the doctors, nurses, patients,” she said. “You wouldn’t trade those moments for anything.”
But there are emotionally difficult days, too.
At Tramontozzi’s first Day of Remembrance ceremony at St. Jude – when families celebrate the lives of the children who didn’t survive their battles with cancer – she met the mother of a 16-year-old girl she had befriended.
“We all loved her,” she said. “Her mother didn’t know it, but she gave me my job description that day when she said, ‘As hard as it is to be here without my daughter, St. Jude gave us so many good memories.’ And I thought, that’s what we need to do: Know that we gave them a really good day, a happy memory.”