December 1993. The renal failure patient slowly opened her eyes, gradually taking in the scene. Her sleep had been softly interrupted by the soft humming of the age-old classic, “Silent Night”. She smiled as tears welled in her eyes, taking in the unsuspected Christmas caroling in her room.
There we were, four co-workers and I, who had become fast friends. Our mutual love of Soul and R&B, the cohesive factor between us: 2 Patient Care Technicians, 1 Nurse’s Assistant, 1 Physical Therapist and 1 Phlebotomist, looking like the latest Motown product…
…except in hospital scrubs of different colors.
Having spent many breaks together, we used much of that time, pumping out popular and unreleased ballads by then-hot groups like Boyz II Men, En Vogue, UNV (Universal Nubian Voices), For Real, New Edition and many others. We didn’t think much of it, singing in the company of other staff workers, all in their early 20s. Just hanging out and jamming. It wasn’t until one of the doctors in the area told us that we should use that energy to go caroling somewhere. And just like that, the transformation occurred.
A gospelized, barbershop quintet of R&B singers, come together to croon soulful renditions of holiday classics.
We soon became quite popular in the hospital, oftentimes singing in the dimly, yet colorfully lit hospital cafeteria with the help of a piano, brought in for the holiday season. Each of us had our vocal ranges and our so-called song selection specialties, mine being Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” and Boyz II Men’s “Who Would Have Thought”.
My third favorite was Luther Vandross’ “Every Year, Every Christmas”, where I carefully substituted his strong upper register with a safe and soft falsetto, reminiscent of Earth, Wind & Fire’s soprano-singing Philip Bailey. And although requested often, this was a tune I eventually tried to avoid, considering Luther was singing about struggling through Christmas without someone he truly loved.
Our one-woman audience cried and cheered, clapping as we closed out the tune we had sung in a volume so low that it could barely be heard beyond the confines of the room, but loud enough for each of us to infuse our own dose of passion and flavor.
This is how we spent our lunch, designated breaks and extended pauses between patients. Sometimes, depending on who was where, we were reduced to a quartet or trio. But we took advantage of that, often singing in smaller combinations in two locations at once. Even when we were alone, we offered the joy of a solo in our respective patient’s rooms while tending to them. Many times, we sang in the presence of visitors who shared in the delight.
It was our way of giving love to those in constant pain or discomfort, or the terminally ill, like our patient suffering from renal failure, in addition to those like her. A place where many people “came to die” as I was told upon my initial assignment. Horrible to hear, but it was the reality. Still, die was a much kinder word than “expire”: a standard term used by the higher-level medical professionals.
Our wing of the hospital, labeled 3C, was known for the delicate and special conditions of its patients, like diabetes and HIV. We initially called ourselves “5C” aka Five Crooners/Carolers, but since there was a 5C ward, we just went back to being that singing crew with no name.
She joyfully hugged and kissed each of us, confessing how her spirit had been low, not having seen any loved ones in recent days. We assured her that we were her loved ones and would be there every day, which we were, although seldom all at once – her surprise singing event being the sole exception.
We left the room silently and quickly, as directed by the Charge Nurse, a condition by which we were allowed to perform. Once beyond the door, we hugged each other and wiped our own tears, appreciating the magnitude of the moment, knowing her time was short, as was the case with many others.
We checked the time to see if we could get one or two more in. More of often than not, we’d have to return to our individual routines, respond to a personal page or rush to an overhead code alert where emergency treatment or assistance was needed.
This was the way until our shifts ended, allowing us to spend an additional 3 or 4 dedicated hours, entertaining patients in the Children’s ward, ICU and other areas where both patients and their families needed just a little more comfort…
…and a little more hope.
This was the season. This was the reason.
Happy Holidays, y’all…
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