Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, United States
My eyes immediately focused on the bandaged stump and the empty space where his leg used to be. The nurse had warned me before I entered the room, but I was still jolted by the sight. The surgeons had amputated his leg just two days before, below the knee. This was the last resort, a life-saving measure. How must it feel to be seventeen years old with only one leg? I forced my gaze away from his wound and met his eyes. They were swollen and tired, probably a combination of pain, medications, and the stress of starting a new life feeling less than whole. I tried to bury my sadness while conjuring a soft smile.
“Hi. My name is Bryan. I’m a medical student, but I play music at the hospital every week. Would you like to hear any songs?” He nodded his head slightly forward in assent. I placed my stack of worn and wrinkled song sheets in his hand, and while he was browsing through the selection, his mother said, “Well, you know he plays guitar, too.” Warm maternal pride filled her eyes.
“That’s great. How long have you been playing?” I asked him.
“Since I was ten,” he responded with a scratchy voice.
“Wow, seven years. I’ve only been playing since my last year of college—about four years.” I began to feel insecure about playing for a musician with more experience than I had. “Why don’t you play something first?” I offered. He weakly nodded his head again. His forearms were pocked with multiple IV lines, each connected to a hanging bag, and his chest had a painful incision that was covered with thick gauze and medical tape. We snaked my guitar through the gauntlet of medical paraphernalia and carefully rested it on his stomach. He winced as he tried to reposition himself in the bed in search of a comfortable position. Once he was settled, he began to pick a rhythm on the guitar. He played slowly and deliberately, trying to fight through the medication haze, persistently coaxing his fingers to follow orders. After a few stumbles, a tune emerged and danced around the room. Then in the midst of his song, he winced harshly through gritted teeth and suddenly stopped playing. His ailing body had sent his brain a reminder of his condition; he could no longer play through his pain. With a frustrated gasp, he surrendered the guitar.
As I returned the guitar to my shoulders, he began to search again through the stack of papers for a familiar song. He looked over my entire catalog before making his first selection. It was one of the most difficult songs I knew how to play. Like a true guitarist, he wanted to test my skills. I took a deep breath and began the song. His eyes were fixed on my fingers as they plucked and strummed, jumped from fret to fret, hammered-on and pulled-off, and bent the strings with bluesy inflection. He seemed to critique every move and every note. His face was painted with intent pleasure.
We played through several songs over the next half hour, each just as difficult. While I played, his eyes were full of life, no longer obscured by pain or worries. He had transcended his problems and found peace in a musical refuge. The music had provided shelter from his stormy life. As the final note faded, reality began to seep back into the room. His eyes lost their depth and forgotten pains quickly registered. Once again, he was a seventeen-year-old boy in a hospital with one leg and several scars.
As I watched his painful transformation, I was sadly reminded that every song must end. My guitar could not undo the harms that he had suffered, and the relief I offered was merely a momentary diversion. My guitar was not a panacea. Regardless, I was convinced that something more than a diversion had taken place. I believed that, in some way, our music would live on beyond the end of that last song. Although he was reeling in pain at that moment, perhaps he felt a trifle less pain because of our music. And later that night when he was lying alone in the hospital bed, perhaps he felt a little less lonely because of my visit. And, someday ahead, when the memories of his suffering have slowly subsided, perhaps he might be reminded of the songs that made him smile on the worst day of his life. And maybe he will smile again and pick up his guitar.
BRYAN SISK is a medical student at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University (class of 2013). His undergraduate training was in biochemistry at the University of Missouri, Columbia. As an avid musician and writer, he has volunteered his talents by playing music for sick children and their families in the pediatric hospital. He is currently pursuing a career in academic pediatric medicine.