“Mr Feller, can we get sick and die?”
The question was a legitimate one. Here I was taking a group of 7th graders to the hospital to perform for pediatric patients; most of my students lived in poverty and had never performed volunteer work – and their experiences with the hospital were anything but positive.
“No, you won’t get sick and die. Honestly, they’re more at risk of getting sick from you than you are from them. These kids will all be fighting serious diseases – cancer, leukemia, stuff like that. Diseases you can’t catch by breathing the same air or being in the same room. But their bodies, because they are so sick, are at danger of catching colds or the flu from you guys, which is why the hospital won’t let someone come and perform if you’ve been sick recently.” I tried to both re-assure them they would be okay, and at the same time give them a glimpse of what these children were suffering from – and how severe it was.
In 1999 my sister, then 20 years old, died of leukemia. The Thanksgiving after her high school graduation she was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer in her knee. After 18 months of intense chemo and multiple surgeries – including having a fake knee installed and 18” of her femur removed – she was doing well and it appeared the cancer was gone. Because of her age at diagnoses Erin was chosen as a recipient of a wish from the Starlight Foundation, so in the summer of 1999 we – my parents, her, and myself – all traveled to Alaska and spent 7 days on an Alaska cruise. Unbeknownst to me, that was the last time I would see her alive. After the cruise I returned to my home in Florida and she returned to her home outside Chicago; I had made plans to see her that Christmas, but, unfortunately, that didn’t materialize as I had expected. Instead of coming home for the holidays to go Christmas shopping and enjoy each other’s company, I came home and held the hand of her comatose body and sat next to her as she breathed her final breaths.
I remember visiting her in the hospital and seeing all the kids there, and how depressed they were, and I vowed to do whatever I could to try and bring a little happiness and joy into their lives. So when I became a music teacher I started partnering with an area hospital and would take my students to perform for the pediatric patients. Today was the day we were preparing to take this particular class for the first time. They were both nervous and excited – and so was I.
We spent the class reviewing policies and procedures given to us by the hospital; we talked about what it would mean for the patients; but, mostly, we practiced our songs. I knew that the learning they were going to have as a result of interacting with these patients was not something I could prepare them for. So I simply prepared them for what they were expecting – performing music.
The next day we arrived at the hospital and setup in a small auditorium. The kids were excited to be showing off what they learned, and you could feel the excitement as they chatted and rehearsed their numbers. As the patients began arriving, though, something changed. My students were used to performing for healthy people – and even though I had told them about what they would see, nothing could really prepare them for it. Kids being brought in in wheel chairs, some walked on crutches, and almost every single one was attached to an IV cart. Kids as young as 3 years old, some who had to be held because they were so sick. My students looked at me with eyes of concern and fear; I smiled at them, nodded, and simply said, “This is why we are here – it will be alright.”
By the time we started playing there were probably 75 patients in the auditorium. At first the students struggled to focus, but eventually they found their rhythm and started playing. As they played you could hear the patients clapping, and I knew from the looks on my kids faces that the patients behind me were smiling and having a good time.
After the first 20 minutes of performance we invited patients up to play with us. This was actually the heart of the volunteer program – we weren’t here just to perform for these patients, we were here to drum with them. My students knew this would happen, but they looked at me with concern in my eyes as some of the patients came up and had IVs sticking out of their hands. “Will they be okay, Mr. Feller?” “Will they get blood on my drum?” All sorts of questions – questions I had anticipated from previous visits; questions birthed in what was becoming true concern for their well-being rather than fear. My students were starting to build not just sympathy for these patients, but empathy with them.
“They’ll be fine,” I assured them, “The nurses are only picking kids who are healthy enough to come up here.” My students stood up from their chairs so that the patients could sit in them, and then they were assigned to teach the patient the part for the song we were doing. In class my kids hated – absolutely hated – sharing a drum; but here, something had changed in them. They were excited to share, and they willingly offered the drum to the patients. We started to drum – I taught the patterns, we modeled, and, within just a few minutes, we were making music, only this time the patients were making music instead of watching it.
An hour later we were back on the bus. The mood on the bus was different than on the ride over, though. What had been chatty excitement had turned to quiet contemplation. A couple of my students were crying. As we rode I stood at the front of the bus to debrief with my students what had just happened. One looked at me and said, “My Feller, where did they go after the performance?”
“What do you mean, where did they go?”
“After they left the auditorium, where did they go? Did they go back home? Did they go to another performance? What did they do?” the student asked.
Even with everything that had happened, my students still struggled to grasp the severity of it all. “They went back to their rooms,” I replied. “This is all they get to do – because they are so sick they spend all day, every day, for months in their rooms – laying in a bed, maybe watching TV or playing video games. But they only time they leave is for treatment, or to come see us.”
“You mean they spend 23 hours a day in their bed, and the one time they got to leave they came to see us?” one of them exclaimed?
“More or less,” I responded. “It’s not like they’re in prison, but because they’re so sick they can’t go out and interact much. So, yes, they spend almost all day in their room, and today they got to come do something special – and that something special was to play drums with you.”
“That’s so sad,” one of them commented. “I wish I could do more.”
“It is sad,” I said, “But you also need to realize how much you did do.”
At which point they started talking about the looks on the patients’ faces, how much fun they had playing with the patients, how cool it was to teach them songs. I sat down, thankful that my students were, for the briefest of moments, seeing beyond themselves, and experiencing something bigger than their own lives.