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'Voice' finalist makes surprise hospice visit

Eileen Lillis of Detroit Lakes, Minn., receives a surprise visit Sept. 17 from “The Voice” finalist Nicholas David. She calls the St. Paul-based singer-songwriter her "Minnesota Jesus.” (Photo courtesy Jeff Grasto)

With his mother receiving end-of-life care at a Lake City hospital, Jeff Grasto got the idea to reach out to one of her favorite musicians. He hoped for a card or phone call — anything to help boost her spirits.

As luck would have it, Nicholas David, a singer-songwriter from St. Paul who finished in the top three last year on NBC’s “The Voice,” had a brief window Sept. 17 before kicking off a national tour.

A few calls later and David was on his way to Mayo Clinic Health System in Lake City for a private performance to one of his biggest fans.

“I couldn’t believe it was happening,” said Grasto, recalling the frantic, two-hour drive to Lake City from his home in Big Lake, Minn. He made it just in time to see his mother’s surprise as David entered the room holding an acoustic guitar.

The emotional reaction was captured on video and uploaded to YouTube. The clip shows David perform a rendition of “You Are So Beautiful” at the foot of a bed as Eileen Lillis and her family look on. The smile on her face is unmistakable.

Lillis first got into “The Voice” by watching the singing competition with her family last year, Grasto said. She particularly enjoyed David, who she calls her "Minnesota Jesus.”

“We feel so grateful,” Grasto said. “It was just incredible.”

Lillis has been in and out of hospitals since she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer five years ago, and later an unrelated breast cancer. At the time, doctors gave her 12 to 18 months to live, Grasto said. “We’ve been very fortunate.”

But around nine months ago, blood work showed signs that her cancer had grown more aggressive, and so Lillis underwent additional treatment and surgery. Although the operation was a success, complications have kept her bedridden and unable to return home.

Despite her deteriorating health over the weekend, Grasto said David’s surprise visit has kept his mother’s spirits high.

“She’s had a rough battle,” Grasto said. “But my mom is quite the fighter. She’s a very strong person.”

He added how thankful he is for the work of care management coordinator Deb Schmidt and the rest of the Mayo Clinic Health System staff for making sure his mother is comfortable and cared for during her final days.

“They’re all really nice people,” he said. “The nurses are just outstanding.”

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” said Schmidt, who corresponded with David’s agent to plan the visit last week.

She said such positive and uplifting gestures are important in hospice and end-of-life care.

“Not just for the patient, but the whole family as well,” she said. “Even after David left, there was a huge feeling of celebration.”

She noted nearby businesses Rabbit’s Bakery and Pepin Heights Orchards also donated care packages for the occasion on short notice.

“It all happened very quickly, but the timing was just perfect,” Schmidt said.

“God has been working in some miracles,” Grasto said. “I really believe that.”

Video of David’s performance can be viewed at

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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