The inspirational power celebrities have on patients

kenny g

I will never forget my first Kenny G concert. It was in the fall of 1994, just a few weeks after I had undergone my second eye surgery, which I had needed to repair my cranial nerve palsy. By that time, I’d already suffered through five other operations from the neck up, and in my seven-year-old mind, I had somehow convinced myself that I was never going to be “normal” like other children my age. Unlike them, I would be coping with neurological issues and requiring invasive surgeries all my life. Eager to boost my spirits, my mother surprised me with two tickets to see a performance by my favorite musician.

The concert took place at what is now the PNC Bank Arts Center, a large amphitheater in Holmdel Township, NJ. We arrived two hours early, and I still remember standing at the venue’s ticket window and watching my mother pick up a long white envelope, which she handed over and instructed me to open. I was stunned at what I discovered inside.

Not only were there two Kenny G tickets, but also two adhesive backstage passes. I could feel my heart pounding inside my chest. “Are these really for us?” I exclaimed.

“Kenny wants to meet you,” my mother said, delighted by my enormous grin.

An hour later, I found myself sitting backstage with my hero, Kenny G. There we were, the two of us in a private room brimming with brass musical instruments. With tears in my eyes, I remember telling Kenny how I had listened to his music during several of my hospitalizations, how it had a magical way of making me feel better. I’ll never forget him telling me that I needed to stay strong.

“I will,” I promised him. He gave me a tour of his instruments, starting with his alto saxophone, and for a few minutes he even played a beautiful melody just for me. In that moment, I felt like the luckiest kid in the world.

It’s a funny thing how celebrities have the power to restore hope, strength, and joy in young patients who are going through difficult times. Two decades have passed since I first met Kenny G, yet I still remember every word of our conversation, and I continue to think about that concert frequently.

While I have yet to figure out how exactly my mother arranged for me to meet Kenny, I consider myself extremely lucky to have had the opportunity, especially in that particularly dark moment of my childhood. Not long ago, I found an opportunity to pay my good fortune forward to another young man struggling with a difficult post-operative recovery.

In my first month of medical school, now almost two years ago, I met a sixteen-year-old patient named Ryan who had recently undergone the surgical resection of a brain tumor. It was Halloween, and I had been volunteering with classmates on the pediatric unit, walking from room-to-room with bags full of sweets. Towards the end of the evening, we found ourselves standing at the foot of Ryan’s bed, where he lay motionless with gauze wrapped firmly around his head. His upper extremities were weak, and his right pupil deviated to the side as he attempted to focus his eyes on me. His mother lowered the volume on the television so we could hear each other over the Knicks game.

What ensued was a lengthy conversation about the Knicks, which was Ryan’s favorite basketball team. Soon I learned that his idol was the team’s forward, Carmelo Anthony (a.k.a. “Melo”). Ryan knew Carmelo’s background and stats like the back of his hand, telling me that he had played for Syracuse University and led the team to their first national championship in 2003, how he had then played with the Denver Nuggets and become an NBA all-star, and how in 2008 he brought home an Olympic gold medal from Beijing.

I was so intrigued by what I had heard about this basketball sensation that later, once I arrived home, I couldn’t help but Google him. Within minutes, I was reading basketball forums that described the all-star as “generous” and “kindhearted.” A fan wrote, “One time he stayed after a game to sign autographs, and when it was my turn, he ran out of ink, so he gave me his headband.” It was clear Carmelo had an unassuming manner and benevolent spirit, so I began scavenging the Internet for the “right” contacts in case he might be willing to do something nice for Ryan. Several hours later, I managed to deliver a message to his representatives, explaining how grateful I would be if Carmelo could sign an autograph for one of his young fans in the hospital.

No response came at first, but eventually I received an email from a woman who was no longer working with Carmelo. She was, however, willing to forward my plea to his agent. “I’d appreciate that,” I wrote back.

On a rainy morning in November 2011, a tall woman dressed in dark jeans, a black coat, and a black scarf met me in the hospital lobby. A child life specialist and three classmates rounded out the entourage. I thanked her for coming, and we proceeded upstairs and knocked on the door of room 937. “Ryan?”

His parents welcomed us into the room. We approached his bedside and the tall woman introduced herself as Carmelo’s friend. “He heard you’re a devoted fan and wanted to do something special for you,” she said, presenting Ryan with an autographed basketball and Knicks hat. Ryan’s face lit up like a Christmas tree with his first smile in weeks.

Then the woman’s cellphone began to vibrate. She flipped it open, handing it to Ryan. “Someone wants to talk to you,” she said as we all stepped out of the room, leaving Ryan to speak with his hero.

When we returned, Ryan was elated. “Carmelo promised to pray for me,” he beamed.

That phone call had a big impact on Ryan’s spirit. He thanked me effusively each time I visited him over the following months, full of smiles and vitality. There is something profound about having an encounter with your celebrity idol. When someone you’ve admired and grown to feel like you know on a personal level takes an interest in you, you feel as if you are as special and singular as they are, even if only for a moment. Through my own experience and through watching Ryan’s, I know that such moments are so powerful that they last far beyond the encounter.

I happened to meet Kenny G again last year before his performance at the Blue Note jazz club in Manhattan. As I entered the quaint venue, eager to watch him perform his soothing tones, I noticed him signing autographs for some fans. I walked up to Kenny and re-introduced myself, reminding him of our encounter in 1994. He smiled and told me he remembered the interaction well—that he recalled me wearing sunglasses because I was still sensitive to light after my surgery. I couldn’t believe it.

We chatted for a few minutes, and I told him I was now in medical school, often meeting children in dire situations. I told him how a celebrity icon interaction for a particular child could make all of the difference in that child’s outlook on life.

The positive energy that comes from such an encounter can have a surprising impact on one’s health. Modern medicine, powerful as it is, can achieve only so much. When a child has the opportunity to communicate with someone they idolize, they feel more connected to the world—at the same time as they feel uplifted by the encounter, they also realize that no one is superhuman. Experiencing celebrities as just the same as everyone else, including themselves, is grounding and comforting. Such interactions can give patients a renewed sense of faith in recovery and a brighter outlook on life, and although I can’t prove it, I’m almost positive that this attitude can improve recovery time.

Of course, not all young patients get the chance to meet their celebrity favorites. Still, it behooves us to try to make these types of encounters possible. Just as I figured out how to help Ryan, we all have the power to at least try to make these dreams come true.

Perhaps you cannot arrange to get a child’s hero in the same room. What would be the next best thing? What can you do to make a child’s world more promising than he or she presently perceives it to be? You’d be amazed what wonders you can achieve for others with a resourceful imagination, and how such wonders can truly lift lives.

Robert Spencer is a medical student.

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