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Stories from a Hospital volunteer - "From major to minor"

Greenthorn profile image

Monday 6th December

As some of you know, I occasionally write up a story or two from my Volunteering at a London Hospital, my role being a “Ward Musician.” But in Covid times I'm restricted to the use of a Blue-tooth speaker and the use of the Spotify App to search for patients’ musical requests. But here, I must warn readers that this story is quite emotional.

Last Monday, I was deeply affected by a wonderful encounter with a patient, the said patient being “End-of-life," a term used by the NHS to signal that someone is on the last furlong. Very often, this status (if that word can be used) is shown by a picture of a flying swan at the head of the bed, though this would only be displayed with the consent of the family. In this case, last Monday, there was no picture, but the curtains were 3/4 drawn around the bed, and the patient’s niece was at her bedside. My colleague, Lucy, had overheard the niece talking to a Family Liaison Officer about her auntie’s situation. In these circumstances, family visits can take place.

It was at the end of our shift and Lucy suggested to me that we show our faces to this lady and her niece. The old lady (95) was lying down with her head propped up a little by a stack of pillows, though her head had lolled over to the right. She was conscious and awake and aware her niece was addressing her.

We introduced ourselves to the niece. She turned out to be Scottish and her Aunt originating from near Elgin, Aberdeenshire. I asked if her auntie enjoyed music, and whether I might play something on my Bluetooth speaker. The niece said Auntie Elma loves Ella Fitzgerald and asked her aunt if she’d like to hear a song by Ella. Though her aunt was lying motionless in bed, she was very attentive and we heard her say “Ella” and “Yes”.

I looked at my Spotify app and top of the chosen list was "Every time we say goodbye". I mentioned this title to her niece. We both kind of looked at each other rather sheepishly, both thinking the same thought: Should I play this or not? I really wasn't sure! But something inside me said, "go for it, do it". I held the Bluetooth speaker close to Elma's head, to ensure she would hear the song. It was kind of a tear-jerking moment, listening to the violin intro and then Ella beginning to sing. I glanced across to the niece, sitting there with bated breath.

Would you believe it? This lovely auntie began moving her lips to the song lyrics, as and when she remembered them, and every now and again would sing the words in a faint but audible voice. This was especially true on the phrase, “Every time we say goodbye". I turned to the niece and could see she was in tears. And Lucy as well. Me too. It was such a poignant, yet a happy moment, entirely private behind the blue curtains - a real connection between us all. I just felt honoured to contribute something and share with that family. I know the niece will never forget what happened for the rest of her life. It was my most treasured memory in my 6 years as a volunteer.

The strange thing was, prior to my switching the song on, I had thought the second line of the song was "I cry a little" but is in fact is "I die a little." Would I have still played the song had I known? Who knows? In truth, I don't think it mattered. It was meant to be.

Every single week there is usually something that happens that tells me I was in the right place at the right time. I’m going to quote part of the song: “When you’re near, there’s such an air of spring about it; I can hear a lark somewhere, being to sing about it.” And that’s when my eyes started to well up!

65 Replies

You are treading on dangerous ground there David, but you seem to be doing a great job of it. Brave man. May you long carry on giving comfort in that way and thank you for telling us.👍

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Don-1931

I thought twice about posting this but thought it better to get it out. (That's being selfish.) It really was a precious moment in time. (Several months ago I was invited to become an End of Life volunteer but declined; I just couldn't do it. It would mean just sitting there for half an hour or two hours. For sure the family would appreciate it, as so often they cannot always be there. I wouldn't be comfortable with the role. I much prefer playing the clown. )

Seriously Don, if you think some readers would be distressed on reading this, then please tell me as I would readily take it down now before it gets too much play. Should I delete the picture? I respect your view very much.

But on a funny note, if I were to visit you at home or in hospital, what music or song would you request me to play? Or would you tell me "Get the hell out of here!"

Thanks for coming right back at me!

David 🎶

Don-1931 profile image
Don-1931 in reply to Greenthorn

I can’t think of anyone I know who could have handled a situation as well as you did there David, it was little short of wonderful. You certainly should not deprive others from reading of it. I’m also glad you failed to remove the swan. I was only thinking recently how strange it is that so many people dislike talking of death when nobody has yet managed to avoid it. Of course, I’m of an age when I’d be a fool to ignore it, there being so many things to organise before the great event. I’ve already outlived many who I intended to benefit from my demise. 🙄🤷‍♂️

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Don-1931

I really appreciate what you have said Don. I did manage to delete the picture, not having seen your reply, but of course I reinstated it.

Alberta56 profile image
Alberta56 in reply to Greenthorn

You can come and clown at my deathbed. I would prefer going out with a laugh.

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Alberta56

Ha ha Alberta, I was just saying to someone that I feel like I'm a cross between Danny Kaye and Stan Laurel! I'm there to entertain.I have many a laugh with patients on the wards. The secret is just be myself and be honest. You can always tell if a patient is up for it though sometimes it takes a little coaxing, in that they need to trust you. NB if I get a helicopter then I'll be on call for you!😂

Alberta56 profile image
Alberta56 in reply to Greenthorn

Thank you.

corriena profile image
corriena in reply to Greenthorn

Please dont delet such a beutiful story, End of life is such a strange and difficult subject. Its good to read such a comforting story

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to corriena

Hi Corriena, thank so much. No I won't delete it; I've had so many lovely replies, the first of which was from Don who thought I might be on dangerous ground. I then thought that the image of the swan, coupled with the story, might cause some distress, so I was able to edit the picture out. Then Don came back at me and said "put it back" so I did!It took two drafts for me to write this story how I wanted it. You are right about 'end of life" being arrange and difficult subject. But it's good to talk about it and to express ones hopes, needs and wishes. There can be a lot of humour and warmth in the choice of music and in the activities we share with our loved ones. Someone wrote earlier that she was at a friend's funeral and as the coffin was carried in, they played the theme tune from BBC's Match of the Day which made her cry. I completely understood her reaction: the man's life filled the church! ♥️

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Don-1931

Picture deleted!

Don-1931 profile image
Don-1931 in reply to Greenthorn

Put it back, please.

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Don-1931

She flies again!

Don-1931 profile image
Don-1931 in reply to Greenthorn

Thank you, I forgot to say what music I would ask for in those circumstances. There is one that has stuck in my mind since my wife died in 2010 when I wondered how on earth I was going to managed without her backup. But at the same time being determined that I would. Can I Forget You · Percy Faith & His Orchestra. I would float off thinking 'well I never did'. Peaceful. 🤗

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Don-1931

Don, I'm so glad now that I posted it. I've had some wonderful replies, some leading to other thoughts e.g. music at funerals a few of which were really quite funny. One chap had the theme tune to Match of the Day played as his coffin was carried in. That made the lady cry and I can understand that- I think I posted back "the life of the man filled the church"! I'm gonna look up your song now! 🤪

Damon1864 profile image

That must have been a great comfort to the lady and something her family certainly won't forget, I think you have given her niece a very precious memory. It brought a tear to .y eyes, thank you for sharing this with us Have a lovely day and take care 😊 Bernadette and Jack 🐕 xxxxxx

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Damon1864

Thanks Bernadette and Jack. I've attempted to remove the picture of the swan which I first had shown. I think this is too upsetting. I'm quite sure the niece cherished the moment to actually hear her aunt sing some words. I was telling the story to a shop lady yesterday. She didn't know the song but played it thru a speaker in her shop. Once again my eyes began to well up at Monday's memory. ♥️

I can’t speak….. Thank you for sharing.

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Littlepom

💞 Thanks Littlepom. There are no words.

Don-1931 profile image
Don-1931 in reply to Greenthorn

There are always words, sometimes hard to get them out though.

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Don-1931

Well I was speechless after the song had been played out. I did find it difficult writing this one up. It took me 4 days and went l thru two drafts first.

I don't know "Can I forget you" but will look it up and learn the tune for piano.

Don-1931 profile image
Don-1931 in reply to Greenthorn

There's no rush!! 🤣

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Don-1931

What about me! 😜

Sounds like the lady really enjoyed the song

She was a big fan of Ella, and this song just happened to be top of the list (most listened to) on my Spotify streaming App. The questions was, should I play it?

It made me think, I have chosen the music for my cremation, maybe I should put on my admission notes for "end of life" the introductory tune to Test Match Special (Soul Limbo, Booker T and the MGs,) and David Fanshawe's African Sanctus. The latter, lasting a good long time.

I am often both amused and puzzled by some funeral/cremation choices. Yours sound pretty lively!

I am a cricket nut (as English, present Test Match not too good). Have known this tune most of my life. As to the African music, spent quite a few years living in West Africa so this takes me back to my childhood even has the "call to prayer" from a mosque, mixed in happily with the more Christian themes. Certainly should have people moving out smartly at the end.🤣

knitter profile image
knitter in reply to SORRELHIPPO

I just listened to parts of the African Sanctus , Call to prayer and Dance of Uganda .My OH spent his childhood and many working years in East and Central Africa . Thank you .

I once went to a service where our dead friend, a lovely bloke, came into the crematorium to the sound of the Match of the Day tune played loud and clear. It made me cry. xxx

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Alberta56

And there you have it. A transformative moment when the life of the man fills the church.

Well I take my hat off to you. I've listened to all three, the Test match special theme and the two David Fanshawe's compositions, African Sanctus and Call to Prayer.

I find the latter extremely moving and elegiac. Might even choose it at my own! Certainly the African Sanctus might lead to a stampede out of the church.

😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂 (It's frightening) and the calypso starter would have them jiggling in the aisle! Some party.

My idea of a decent send off. You are right about some of the main African Sanctus, the rain is just drowning everyone at one point. But having lived through a few cyclones in the South Pacific, feel anyone still around, when I go, should be a little uncomfortable.

Wonderful. Thank you so much for posting the story. Sometimes we just have to let our intuition fly free. And you were so right with this, perfect. What an amazing moment.

Love and hugs

Kate xxx

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Katinka46

Thanks Kate. I feel so privileged to be in this role. It kind of grew on me. As Knitter says "The Power of Music". I also advocate working in pairs since it builds up confidence and more often, the bay with 4 or 5 patients comes alive when they see there are visitors (plural) !As a younger man I was very shy but now I'm the opposite. Once I step onto the ward I become someone else, like a cross between Danny Kaye and Stan Laurel. It seems to work.🤡♥️

Thank you for posting such a memorable and moving story .I watched a programme recently which showed a patient with dementia responding to music and singing along ….a light shone in his expression . Music calmed his agitation too.

My late father after his stroke could remember words of a song and sing but making conversation he found near impossible . The power of music .

I find slow gentle music ….60 beats to the minute such as Pachabel…helps relax me when anxious . Or Marconi Union Weightless on you tube .

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to knitter

You are absolutely right Knitter when you say "a light shone in his expression". It is wonderful to see when this occurs - it is like switching on an electric circuit. Sometimes I see just a mouth curl into a smile, and a word or two appear to be forming on the lips of the patient. In these circumstances, I like to prompt their memory by making the consonant or vowel sound of the next word in the lyrics (something I learnt to do when working with autistic children. Especailly on the first beat of a line. Probably the rhythmic kick of a tune is a trigger for the memory to become activated - you can guess when the main beats are, predicted by the pattern of the song. )

I was with a lady last Monday who was entranced by music by Shostakovitch. She was in her 90's, sitting up in bed with a vacant look about her, and her mouth wide open like a rabbit caught in headlights, but very much a thinker in her head. But when I began to play Shostakovitch she was transformed; still open-mothed in her frozen sitting position but you could tell from her eyes how much the music was within her. She later told me that her mother played the grand piano at home! Imagine! And all the memories this music would evoke for her.

I wasnt going to post this because I didnt have the words and it is so personal, but I'm very glad I did in the end for I have had some wonderful replies, ,any leading off into other stories, just like you remembering your dad! 💞

Interesting what you say about 60 bpm! I will look up the Marconi Union Weightless link later in the day. Thanks again.

knitter profile image
knitter in reply to Greenthorn

Check the weightless video with the feather picture …no adverts .It’s not particularly tuneful , but it supposed to help with anxiety.

Spiegel im Spiegel for cello and piano is thought to help regulate breathing ….slow and gentle .

Thank you for sharing this Greenhorn. I didnt know about the swan x

Don-1931 profile image
Don-1931 in reply to Izb1

Izb1 profile image
Izb1 in reply to Don-1931

Thank you Donx

Gosh, that brought tears to my eyes. Your instinct was so right.

Sad though it is, that’s a beautiful story. It brought a tear to my eye, but the patients in the hospital are so lucky. My mum is in a hospital in northern England and they don’t appear to have volunteer visitors.

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to helenlw7

Thanks Helen. I think we are lucky here in London. Certainly, University College London Hospital has a very well organised volunteer management system in place with all sorts of training given both online and in meetings. We have volunteers that do patients shopping, others that hand out daily newspapers (all free), and even 4 volunteers with dogs. Others work as guides in Outpatient departments. The volunteers are having a zoom meeting on the 15th during which there will be a Quiz.

I am really sorry to hear that there are no volunteer visitors where your mum is. Here at UCLH, family liaison officers (some acting in a voluntary role) will arrange phone calls between the patient and their family by loaning cheap mobile phones. I dearly hope your mum is on the mend and will be back with family soon. 💞

helenlw7 profile image
helenlw7 in reply to Greenthorn

The whole situation with my mum has been a fiasco!

Thank you for relating this to us :) It sounds to me as though you did absolutely the right thing by playing the song to her, she obviously enjoyed it very much! There can be a little too much pussy footing around the inevitable, I believe. You are a star for the time and effort you put into cheering up the wards, thank you xx

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to leo60

Thanks so much Leo. I just said to Mavary in the comment below yours " it's all about making connections". Thanks for your time in replying.

That was so touching.

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Mavary

Yes Mavary, it IS a touching moment, a connecting moment. It's all about making connections!

What a wonderful if very sad story. I have to say I love Ella Fitzgerald even though not from my era I remember my mum used to play her often. Her and Frank Sinatra and Petula Clark. Ella hits you right in the heart. You gave the poor lady and her niece a memorable moment. Her niece will never forget it and you gave the lady some joy in her last hours. That's admirable.

Beutifull 🥲


Oh, Greenthorn, that was so moving and I'm sure you gave the lady some joy having Ella played for her. I love the idea of the swan above the bed, giving staff and visitors notice of the patients needs in their final hours, days , whatever time is left. Thank you for sharing these wonderful stories xxx😊

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to HollyBoyd

Bless you HollyBoyd; I'm encouraged to write more, some sad, some funny and some just plain inspirational!

HollyBoyd profile image
HollyBoyd in reply to Greenthorn

That sounds good xxx

I have had two discussions recently about end of life, as I have been told that there is nothing more that can be done for me. My oxygen has been increased to 6 lpm and the next step will be liquid oxygen. I have found it really helpful for people to be honest with me, it makes it easier to bear. In amongst all of this I have had the checks for bowel cancer and am happy to say were negative. The cardiologist said that I had done well to get this far, so I am glad about that. All the best to everyone and keep as well as possible xx I look forward to Christmas 2022 so I can get together with everyone again!

Carnival 567, thankyou so much for replying. It is Caspiana on this site that says we are all walking each other home. I know that there are friends on this forum that walk the journey with you. Just by replying to me, I feel I have walked a few steps with you ♥️ XXDavid

Caspiana profile image
Caspiana in reply to Greenthorn

We are all headed on the same road to the same destination, all that differs is timing. We are with you Carnival567 I understand well your need for honesty. There's nothing worse than false joviality when one feels on a lonely path. But know we will not let you walk alone as we are on the same path. Love to you. xx 🌿

Dear David, that’s sounds like a really special moment for that dear lady and her niece! And for you and Lucy too! I agree sometimes these things are supposed to be!

I loved this story the first time I read it and now I love it even more the second time. Your work at the hospital is not easy David . You see and face what most cannot. And you bravely give comfort to those who will soon start their next journey. We struggle to be born and we will struggle to depart , but people like you make it much more tolerable. Thank you for what you do.

Cas xx 🌿

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Caspiana

Bless you dear Cas. I'm lifted but what you say. My thoughts are with you today. XX

Has anyone talked to you about adding "smell" in some cases, with the music? A unit I worked in used to use smell in a sort of reminiscence group. For the ladies, there were the kitchen smells of their generation, mainly the washing powders and whiteners, also the red cardinal polish, for the kitchen red tiles. Also some perfumes specific to their generation, such as Je Reviens by Worth and the older Yardley ones such as Lavender and Lilly of the Valley. I know there would be problems for some with chest issues, but can trigger past memories. I cannot think of what we did for the gents, the lady's perfumes held good memories for a lot of them though😘

That's very interesting SH. I will explore the idea with my Managers, though I doubt whether funding would meet such luxuries. However, I might yet bring in a bar of Coal Tar soap as an experiment! We could set up sniffing quizzes! Last February one of my colleagues canvassed several chocolate companies to request they donate chocolates for the nurses on Valentine's Day. Additionally, she asked for artificial roses. Many responded and I was part of the team that distributed them on my two wards, sometimes giving the flowers out to patients. If I win the lottery I will buy a special belt to hold an assortment of perfumes. I do like the idea. I return to the hospital tomorrow and will check on the Ella Fitsgerald lady. 🎶

A very old article but gives an idea. But then I am an old Occupational Therapist.

Such a lovely thing to do n a beautiful Song.

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to DeeBee60

We saw that lady and her niece again, yesterday. She liked Nat King Cole so I played "Let there be love" and again she began to sing some of the words. When the niece first saw us she said "Oh no, you're gonna make me cry again". (In a playful way).

I then asked the niece if I could bring Christmas, slightly earlier. She replied yes, so I played Nat King Cole singing The Christmas Song, "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire". This time the old lady closed her eyes for the duration of the song and seemingly nodded off but as soon as it ended her niece asked her "Did you enjoy that Auntie Elma?"

"Oh yes" she replied.

A good feeling all round. And wet eyes again.

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