The Get-well Guitarist
Read an excerpt from A Lasting Effect, Reflections on Music and Medicine.
As a medical student at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, Bryan Sisk, BS ’07, played his guitar and sang for patients. His book, A Lasting Effect, Reflections on Music and Medicine, collects some of his experiences. Here is an excerpt.
I always began by introducing myself and explaining the two rules: “My name is Bryan. I’m a medical student, and I play guitar in the hospital every week. I would love to play some music for you, but there are two rules: Number one — I will play as long as you want me to; and number two — you can laugh at me if I mess up!” This always seemed to draw smiles when a stranger entered the hospital room with a guitar instead of a white coat or scrubs. There was no fear of an ulterior motive: no needles, no blood draws, no EEG leads, no chemotherapy, no procedures. On Monday afternoons, I set aside my title of medical student and assumed my role as “volunteer musical services,” a title I had invented. During those two or three hours each week, I strolled through the inpatient and outpatient pediatric departments of the hospital with my guitar in hand and played music for sick kids. After three years of encounters with these young patients, I have collected a full spectrum of profound experiences and memories.
One particular patient continues to stand out in my mind. I will call her “Laney.” When we first met, it was only my third week at the hospital. I was still learning how to interact with these young patients, trying to determine my role as I shifted between medical student and musician. Before I went to visit Laney’s room, her doctor shared her story with me. She was a 12-year-old girl who had previously been a musician and an actress. Her mother had told me stories of her playing violin, acting in musicals and taking voice lessons. She loved to perform, no matter the venue. But this all changed. The first time I visited her, she was three days post-op following surgical removal of a brain tumor. Although the surgeon had carefully excised the mass, the cancer had already damaged the surrounding tissue. The disease and the treatment had combined to leave Laney completely debilitated: unable to move, unable to talk.
My eyes pored over the sad sight in front of me when I entered her room. She was lying on her back in the hospital bed with a loose gown draped over her skinny body. Her chest gently raised and lowered as she breathed, hardly noticeable under her gown and blanket. Her left forearm was pierced by an IV line, with medications and fluids slowly entering her vein from the bag hanging at her bedside. Her bald head was perfectly smooth except for a C-shaped incision on the right side just above her ear, where the surgeon had passed through Laney’s skull into her brain. Now, the skin was tightly sewn with thick black sutures, each stitch dimpling the surrounding skin. A solitary drop of blood hung from the last stitch.
Her eyes stared intensely into mine as I introduced myself. I masked my anxiety with a smile and asked if Laney wanted to hear any music. Her mother turned to her and said, “Now, sweetie, tell Bryan if you want to hear some music.” With great effort, she turned her left hand into the “thumbs up” position. This was the only extremity that she could move, her only means of communication with the outside world. As I began to strum the guitar and sing, I noticed a change in Laney’s face; she could smile too — at least with the left side of her mouth. After finishing the first song, I asked if they wanted to hear another. Laney gave another unsteady “thumbs up.” Forty-five minutes and several more “thumbs up” later, we had played through my entire stack of music. After giving my farewell, I left the room burdened with conflicting emotions. I was glad to have consoled a distressed young girl, but I was also saddened by the belief that she would never recover from her current condition.
Two weeks passed before I next saw Laney. At first sight, I noticed a difference in her. Her body had assumed a more natural, relaxed posture in the bed, and she was smiling with both sides of her mouth. She was also able to lift her arm completely off of the bed to wave hello to me when I entered the room. The neurons in her brain were dutifully working to reconnect, attempting to salvage some facet of normalcy. Given this improvement, I decided to challenge her. I placed a maraca in her hand and asked her to shake it while I played the guitar. Song after song, her stiff arm weaved in and out of rhythm with the music. Yet again, we played through all of my songs. As I stood up to leave and walked toward the door, I heard a high-pitched voice weakly say “Thank you.” After speaking these words, she deflated into the bed. This simple task had drained all of her energy.
Laney continued to progress over the next few weeks, and she was eventually transferred to a rehabilitation center and subsequently sent home. At that point, I was not sure if I would ever see her or her mother again, but nearly three months later we were reunited. Fortunately, her outpatient visits were scheduled during the time I played guitar, allowing me to follow Laney on a weekly basis for several more months. When we had our first reunion, I was amazed by her progress. She was talking and she could stand with the help of leg braces. Although she was still fairly debilitated, she and her mother were in the process of redefining normal. Success was a matter of outlook, and we all saw the success in Laney’s story.
Following the usual pattern, I asked if she wanted to hear any music, knowing she would say yes. The first song was one that I had played for her every week when she was paralyzed in her hospital bed. As I began to sing, I noticed another voice accompanying me. After all the weeks of playing and singing to her paralyzed body, she had memorized the words to the song. Although her body could not move, her active mind was always there with me, absorbing and recording the words. Yet again, she had surpassed my expectations.
Over the course of the next several months, we continued our weekly visits. Her speech continually improved, and she eventually began to walk with the assistance of a modified walker. Her prognosis continued to improve as well. The chemotherapy was working, and there was no sign of cancer. With each new scan, the physicians felt more and more confident that she was “cured,” the magical word that oncologists use only with great caution.
Finally, the day came when Laney received her last infusion of chemotherapy. After this last treatment, it was unlikely that we would have any future music sessions. Our final guitar session was filled with as many emotions as our first. Over the year that we knew each other, I had grown quite attached to this young girl and her resilient spirit. I realized how much I would miss our guitar sessions together, but I was also overjoyed to see her return to the life of a teenage girl. She had suffered enough.
We played through our usual songs and talked about their hopes and plans for the upcoming year: musicals, vacations, school. Eventually, I gave her my final farewell and received hugs from both mother and daughter before walking out of the room. My experience with Laney had come to a conclusion; it was time for each of us to start new stories. After leaving her room, I knocked on the next patient’s door. It was a young boy whom I had never met, so I introduced myself. “My name is Bryan. I am a medical student, and I play guitar on Mondays. I would love to play some music for you, but there are two rules … .”