A hospital floor is so noisy. Despite posting signs reading “Quiet is Healing” in the halls, it’s mostly an iatrogenic cacophony.
Some of it is necessary distraction, like IV Pump alarms, telemetry alarms, bed alarms, telephone rings, beeper beeps (lol, yes still a thing). Sadly, they’re all dissonant tones! Phones are B-E trills, heart monitors are a high B-ish, beepers are mostly F#. Why couldn’t they be harmonic in the same key so that when they inevitably pile up it’d be a pleasant chiming instead of this din of ding-dings we have to yell over?
And then there are all the things-on-wheels trundling around outside. Patients on stretchers, housekeeping garbage bins, cleaning machines, vitals towers, isolation carts, ultrasounds and x-ray machines, nutrition carts. And teams of doctors rounding, nurses working, clerks directing, maintenance staff bustling around. I wonder how any of our patients get any rest at all. They also have to cope with their roommates’ blaring TVs, the incessant interruptions from all the healthcare workers coming in and out all day. One of our patients brought noise cancelling headphones…
In our team workroom, we always keep the door closed because it’s so noisy outside, but even then there’s the incessant clicking and clacking of mouses and keyboards. Sometimes we have Spotify coming out of tinny speakers built into a workstation, but it needs to be unobtrusive so that we can always communicate. In other words, our auditory ergonomics are suboptimal.
Thus, I get my fill of music off the ward. Well, I may have overdosed on music recently. Last Wednesday, I went to the Lincoln Center to watch the New York City Ballet perform The Nutcracker. It’s the original famous American interpretation by George Balanchine, with the little kids and the toy soldiers and mice battling and the grand twinkling Christmas tree that grows out from the stage itself and the fabulous dance troupe and virtuosic soloists.
Last Tuesday, another med student/pianist and I played background piano music at the med school Dean’s holiday party. Last Thursday, I played holiday tunes and some Debussy at the Department of Surgery’s holiday party. That means that the weekend prior I had to relearn my entire holiday tunes set. I allotted 4 hours to practicing piano. That is, I sacrificed medicine study time. My classmates look at me funny when I make such decisions. “How do you even have time?!”
Sometimes it seems as if med school is trying to drain out the human in me. This year has been trying on so many levels — intellectually, emotionally, energetically — and when I barely have time to eat and sleep and exercise, med school would easily take away music too. But I don’t let it, so I make time.
Because there’s ORCHESTRA! Our eclectic little group of hobbyist musicians, filled with Cornell med students (only 8 of us, lol), other schools’ med students, our hospitals’ and affiliates’ nurses, researchers, administration, residents, professors, attendings, etc. Our friends and Juilliard affiliates come to fill in the roster. Late at night, we crowd into the back room of the hospital’s basement cafeteria. With our great friendly conductor, we just hang out for 2.5 hours and try to put together some music.
So, for me, music and medicine meld together in funny ways. My attending last week plays first stand second violin, so we sit literally next to each other in orchestra. A few times I attended evening lectures with viola in tow or dressed in a full suit. When I draw ABGs (arterial blood gases), I modify my technique because I can’t palpate anything through my viola calluses, haha. Tomorrow morning is my medicine shelf exam, but tonight was our orchestra holiday concert, where we played selections from Hansel and Gretel and closed with Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony.
In the “New World,” we violas team up with the cellos and basses for the eerie Adagio opening. We quietly accompany the lovely and renowned English horn solo in the 2nd movement, and then to close the 3rd we diligently count out the written ritardando with 123456 1-2-3-4-5 1–2–3–4 1—2—3 1 … … bah! And after the 4th’s Jaws-like opening, we just let just let my bow arm fly as the brass blast the fanfare. Orchestra’s just fun!!
Music balances against the madness that is medical school. During this year of intense practical education, trying to impress supervisors, and fighting against inexorable illness, it’s nice to shed our white coats and set aside our stethoscopes for a moment. We don our concert blacks, raise our instruments, and come together to create something unequivocally beautiful.