Amid pony rides, a classic car show and the electrified guitar riffs of a rock band Sunday at the Craving for a Cure for Juvenile Diabetes fundraiser in Islip Terrace, a tough-looking retired firefighter named Dennis Patti spotted Heather McNamara and started to cry.
"My God, she's such an inspiration," he said.
This happens a lot to Heather, 10, of Islip Terrace. In 2009, she lived through a risky 23-hour surgery to remove a tennis-ball sized tumor from around her pancreas; later, she starred in a commercial for the hospital where her surgery was performed, gamely taking on the many syllabled "Presbyterian" in the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital system when she described her surgery.
Now, she lives with type 1 diabetes, a result of having her pancreas -- along with several other organs -- removed in the landmark procedure -- and she deals with celebrity.
Patti saw the commercial before he underwent a liver transplant at the same hospital; seeing "her little face," he said, made him hope he, too, would improve. "Can you say 'Presbyterian?' " he asked her Sunday. She did.
"People tell us all the time that Heather is their inspiration, that she gives them hope -- even in the supermarket," said Tina McNamara, Heather's mother. "That's her job. That's why she's still here. People think I'm crazy, but I believe she's here to make the world a different place."
By now, Heather has greeted her friend Kylie McConnell, also 10, with a hug and cooed over Kylie's recent misadventure with ear-piercing.
When they'd first met, over Halloween cupcakes in first grade at Connetquot Elementary School, life had not been great. They couldn't spend too much time together because Heather was sick, and when they did, Kylie recalled, "she couldn't really do a lot."
Life since then is much improved, they said. "She doesn't seem depressed anymore," Kylie said of her friend.
This summer, they see each other most days or video chat, text or talk on the phone, and they never seem to run out of things to talk about. "If we do, which we haven't yet, we would just make up a conversation," said Heather.
The prognosis is favorable that next year, when sixth grade starts, their parents will let them walk at least part of the way to school.
Watch Heather's New York Presbyterian commercial below: