Music is creating beauty in the most surprising of places

“Good morning, Mr. S! How are you feeling today?” I ask as I step into his hospital room. Yesterday, Mr. S was admitted for infective endocarditis and has been tolerating antibiotic treatment well. I am a medical student on my acute cardiology rotation taking care of him.

“I’m feeling fine,” he says, and I proceed to ask about how he slept, if he’s experiencing any chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath, abdominal pain, or problems going to the bathroom. He seems to have all these answers memorized, saying no to my questions. I perform a physical exam and decide that he is doing alright.

“Anything else I can help you with?” I ask. I’m ready to head back to the team. “Yes,” he says. “I was wondering if I could bring my Irish penny whistle to play while in the hospital. I just feel so bored and I don’t want to be sitting here with nothing to do.” This was an interesting request that I hadn’t heard before.

“I will check with my attending about that. There should be some places in the hospital where you can practice your penny whistle without disturbing anyone,” I reply. “Thank you,” he says. I say my goodbyes and leave the room. Later on rounds, it is decided that there is a family waiting room where he can play his penny whistle in peace. We tell him, and he is satisfied.

Over the weekend, I begin to think more about Mr. S and his affinity for music. I remember my past experiences playing music with patients when I volunteered at a homeless medical facility before medical school. It truly brought a moment of joy, connection, and a lifting of their spirits in the midst of illness and unimaginable stressors. I decide to bring in my violin on Monday to see if he would be interested in playing together. When I visit him, he shows me his penny whistle proudly. “Were you able to play it this weekend?” I ask. He tells me happily, “Yes, the nurses actually encouraged me to play in my room.” I reply, “I brought in my violin today, and was wondering if you’d be interested in playing together this afternoon.” His face lights up with a smile and he tells me, “Sounds good, I’ll be here.” During my lunch break, I return to his room with my violin in hand.

“While walking around the hospital the other day, I found a hallway away from patient rooms where I think it’ll be okay to play music,” he tells me. “That’s great!” I say, and we tell the nurses where we’re going and head down the hall. He plays some Irish folk tunes that are repetitive, allowing me to catch on and find harmonies that work. We continue playing for a few minutes, getting some glances from passersby but no one says anything. Finally, a middle-aged woman pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair approaches and stops in front of us. I am worried that she will tell us to stop.

But surprisingly, she says, “Your music is beautiful. I want you to play for my sister, who is dying.” Mr. S and I look at each other, then nod and say “We will come.” We head upstairs with our instruments in tow, and enter the room of a patient who is intubated and unconscious. There are multiple family members huddled around, looking very serious and sad. The lady who requested us announces, “These musicians are going to play for her.”

We start with the folk song that we had played last, and I feel the depth and weight of the moment. The melody with its harmony is slow but deliberate, using patterns to build a statement that has a rise and a fall. Once the last notes are delivered, there is a moment of silence that is peaceful and serene. The lady then asks us, “Do you mind staying until the doctor and my brother come, before we withdraw care?”

“Sorry, I need to get back to my room. I’m a patient too, and this is my doctor,” Mr. S says, holding up his wrist with his hospital bracelet and pointing to me. Some family members gasp in surprise. I quickly correct him, saying “I’m just a medical student,” but they don’t seem to care. “We didn’t know, we thought you were part of the music outreach program,” the lady says. She then asks, “What are you here for?” and Mr. S explains. The family members then huddle around him to pray for him. They are grateful for our presence there.

We head back down to his hospital room. We are quiet and solemn, recognizing the significance of the moment we had a privilege to be a part of. We say our goodbyes and Mr. S leaves the hospital that afternoon, no longer requiring inpatient services.

My experience with Mr. S teaches me that beauty can be created in the most surprising of places, as long as we allow for those moments to occur. Rather than simply viewing the patient as a checklist of the review of systems, delving deeper into their desires can create a meaningful interaction that can lift the spirits of both the patient and the provider. In this scenario, music was a similar passion between us, which provided an opportunity to share in that together and experience the calming effects it provided. However, the most surprising and consequently beautiful aspect of the interaction was being able to use our gifts to impact a family struggling with the impending loss of a loved one. As I move forward in my medical career, I hope to continually seek unexpected ways to bring beauty and healing to those around me.

Glenna Wong is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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