This is only the second time that I have played a hospital event, and my previous performance at Joe DiMaggio Hospital was definitely one of the more difficult shows I've played. These events typically have a 4:1 adult to child ratio. So many grow-ups swarming around these young, sick children nervously hoping that they are having a good time makes for a difficult atmosphere in which to perform. To top it off, there were only three or four children in attendance and all were in that tricky 'tween phase, too old to enjoy my style of music and too young to fain politeness when I am unable to play T.I., Lil' Wayne or Miley Cyrus on an acoustic guitar.
Needless to say, I was a bit nervous going into the Radio Lollipop Party and that is a rare thing for me. My schedule for the evening included two "big" performances at the different playrooms and two series of bed-side visits for those children who were unable to leave their beds. I was to be escorted around by a volunteer who's job it was to keep me on schedule and guide my through the labyrinth of hospital wards. Radio Lollipop had gone all out, and the main organizer had a slew of performers, activities, costumed characters and caterers to oversee. My goal was to smile, play my best, and roll with whatever came my way. In the end this attitude served me well even though, at times, I felt alternatively lost and overwhelmed.
The main playroom at Miami Children's is a third floor, outdoor, screened-in "gym" of sorts. They had it decked out with cardboard cut-outs, food stations, streamers, and a make-shift stage for the performers and karaoke. As is typical for a children's hospital playroom, the walls were painted with cheery murals and there was a large play structure in the middle of the rubber floored room. I was scheduled to open the party with a 15 minute set. Before taking the stage I was introduced to my escort for the evening, one of the "Teen Counsel" volunteers. She was shy, but friendly and as it turned out, she was once a long-term patient in one of the wards we visited.
Because of the large size of the room, and my desire not to repeat the "naked" feeling that I had at the Joe DiMaggio event, I brought along a small, suitcase sized P.A. so I could have my backing tracks and microphone. It's a bit of a Rock and Roll cliché, but no one wants to be the opener in festival show for this very reason... I played my set for the caterers and a few of the volunteers. Eventually, a mother and her wheelchair-bound daughter arrived and they got a personal performance. They were demonstratively grateful, and I always enjoy a well-received serenade. At the tail-end of my final song I got the "wrist watch" sign from my escort, so I quickly packed up my things for the next adventure. Sadly, this was the last time I would need all this equipment and the rest of the evening it served as a giant burden that I had to maneuver around doorways, through narrow hallways, and past I.V. stands!
The next stop on our tour was the PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit). On our way, I was becoming increasingly less confident in my escort. "I'm not really sure where we're going," she exclaimed as she lead me out of the main party area. There were moments of wandering the halls punctuated by uncomfortable elevator rides, eventually we found our destination and after a sheepish, self-conscious introduction by my teenaged escort I began my first in-ward performance.
To set the stage, I was in an intensive care unit, which meant a scene similar to something out of an E.R. episode. There was a big open wing with several beds, many busy nurses and doctors, large, noisy pieces of equipment, and several patients and families in need of ongoing, intensive care while I performed. These poor children were in visible pain or in various states of consciousness, and to my shock, were all, on average about 13! There I stood with my acoustic guitar and my guitar-patterned aloha shirt thinking to myself Oh, No! I can't very well play "The Dinosaur Song" to these kids!
To break the ice I attempted to meet some of the kids on the ward. I'm comfortable interacting face to face with kids of any age, but I quickly realized how much of our small talk revolves around health. "Hi, I'm Nick, how are you?" (cringe!) "What's your name?" (did I just really ask that to a girl with a trachea tube? Double cringe!). I hadn't prepared any "grown-up" music and had to think on my feet. I did every Beatles tune I could pull off the top of my head, all the while getting the distinct impression that my music and false cheer only aggravated my audience. This was the longest 45 minutes of my life in recent memory. I watched the patients being poked and proded uncomfortably, being swarmed by nurses. I watched them struggle in fitful states of sleep. By the end, I had to force back tears, and nervously said, "Thanks for listening" as I was lead out of the PICU wing.
For those of you who are still reading, thanks for hanging in there! It got a lot better from then on. I do admit that I was ready to head for the door after this experience, but I am so glad I did not. The rest of the night was an inspiring and fulfilling experience that I wouldn't trade for the world. I went on to play for the patients in the neurological ward, the infant ward, and a separate, smaller playroom.
We were joined by a much more self-assured and ebullient member of the Radio Lollipop team as well as Cookie Monster and Elmo, and this rag-tag bunch helped me find my ideal audience. I was able to play all my prepared music to great reception and as the evening stretched on I was regaining my composure and energy and my false cheerfulness gave way to a true smile that went from ear to ear. I was thrown aback by having to perform in a hospital mask in one room. This was new to me, and it was tough to both sing and keep it around my nose at the same time. I did also wind up in one room with four generations of a Cuban family where the grandfather kept shouting spanish requests at me that I had to politely decline, but all in all, I left feeling inspired and honored to be a part of this event.
Kid Quote of The Day: "After you I said," ushering my young student up the stairs to the music studio. "Well, I guess since it's just us boys here, and there are no ladies here. I guess it's alright for me to go first." ~Paul (age: 4)