Hospital Music Man: ‘It’s Hard To Sing When You’re Crying.’

His arms are huge, like NFL offensive lineman huge. His head is bald, like a mixed martial arts fighter.

He looks like one of those tough guys, like a guy you might see playing in a rock band at the bar, beating on the drums. Like a guy who never sheds a tear.

But then…

Then that sweet music pours out of him. The guitar strums gently, the words roll out softly.

Tony Medeiros goes to work each day at IU Health University Hospital and Simon Cancer Center performing a job – an art, actually – that is, arguably, more intimate, more emotional than any inside those hospital walls.

He is the music therapist, the man who plays songs for patients with cancer who are tired and weary and ready to give up, for patients waiting on transplants, who have cystic fibrosis, who have battled drug addiction. He plays songs for the chronically ill, who each time they come back for a stay at the hospital start searching for Medeiros – the guy with a heart bigger than his guitar.

Medeiros has been in a hospital room, more times than he can count, when patients just lay their heads back on the pillow and let his music take them to a better place.

He’s been in hospital rooms when the patients’ breathing becomes rattled and their eyes close and they take their last breath.

And not too long ago, Medeiros was in a hospital room for a moment he will never forget.

***

The man had grabbed Medeiros in the hallway of the Simon Cancer Center outside of a patient’s room. He had a favor to ask.

His wife was inside that room they were standing next to, fighting cancer. Their 30th wedding anniversary was quickly approaching.

The man had something special planned, but he needed Medeiros. He gave him a playlist of their lives together, songs that meant something to them.

When Medeiros showed up a few nights later, the room was dim, lit by candles. Dinner was sitting on a small table. Medeiros played those songs for the couple.

And then, weak and barely able to move because of the pole that held her IVs, that woman was lured out of bed by her husband to dance. They stood there holding each other as Medeiros played their song, “My Best Friend” by Tim McGraw.

“It’s hard to sing,” Medeiros says, “when you’re crying.”

There are things only Medeiros knows about his patients -- secrets.

One song will lead to another will lead to another. The patients will make requests and then they will start talking, really talking. The music evokes all those memories, their feelings, their life’s biggest successes, their life’s biggest regrets. And they tell them to Medeiros.

“How do you share music and not become friends?” Medeiros says.

For a guy who spent two decades playing in bands and in bars and on stages at concerts, this is something so different for Medeiros. So raw.

Before, music was just notes on a page, black and white. It was hollow. Now, Medeiros said, he is fulfilled. 

“I’m sitting there right on their beds. I get to hear their stories,” he said. “And then their story becomes a part of my life.”

***

There was the man with 12 people in the room. He was dying. Medeiros walked into that room and felt the heaviness, the intense stress. 

Then, he started playing “Hallelujah” from a chair in the corner. The family soon asked him to come closer, to play at the foot of the man’s bed, to play directly to him.

“Can you imagine a better way to go as a soul?” Medeiros said. “With 12 people who love you, engaging with music?”

Medeiros was playing the sound track, he said, to the final chapter in that man’s life.

There was the young woman, who had been in and out of the hospital for months with cystic fibrosis. Medeiros got to know her, played for her.

When she needed to make a decision on whether to move forward with a lung transplant, she came to him.

“I really want somebody to talk to and I feel like you’ve been a good friend to me,” she told Medeiros. “I feel like I can talk to you.”

There was the patient on the cancer floor who liked bluegrass music. Medeiros was feeling self-conscious about playing that. It’s not his strong suit, but he went into her room and starting playing Mumford & Sons songs.

She closed her eyes and laid her head back on the pillow, saying nothing. Four songs later and, still, she wasn’t reacting.

“I thought, ‘Oh, I’m failing miserably,’” he said.

Then, that woman lifted her head from the pillow and looked at Medeiros.

“That is the first time I’ve been out of this room in two months,” she told him. It brought Medeiros to tears.

He realized then that he’s not just playing music. He’s taking people to happier places.

Medeiros got his start in music as a young boy, a boy who wanted to play the trumpet in the sixth grade band.  

But he didn’t have the right mouth muscles to play the trumpet – the right embouchure. 

“So they handed me drum sticks,” Medeiros said. “I was disappointed at first, but then realized, ‘Wait a minute. Drummers get the girls.’”

Medeiros became an intense drummer, playing in the jazz band, the pep band, the marching band in high school. He landed a full-ride scholarship to be a drummer at Morehead State University in Kentucky.

He was a standout. Stellar enough that the school gave him his own room in the music building, a tiny cove where he kept a pillow and blankets, a mini fridge and his drum set. It was his second dorm. He stayed there 12 to 14 hours a day, playing drums and skipping classes.

His hard work paid off; the classes skipped, he made up for. Medeiros graduated with a music performance degree and a psychology minor.

“Take those two things and slam them together and that’s music therapy,” he said.

First, though, Medeiros had to get it out of his system. The traveling and playing music full time. At night. On stage. In bands.

So, he did that for more than a decade. But then, he became a father to his son Nicholas Zane, and things changed. Medeiros got divorced and became a single father. That full-time band playing lifestyle wasn’t going to cut it anymore.

One night, as Medeiros was watching a national news show, he saw an interview with a music therapist. She was the therapist working with Gabby Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who had been shot in the head in an assassination attempt.

He’d never even heard of music therapy before. But this progress Giffords was making?

“That, to me, looked like music miracles,” he said. “I was like, ‘That is what I was meant to be.’”

Two months later, Medeiros was in school to get his music therapy degree and, nearly four years ago, he came to IU Health.

His impact has been immeasurable, said Natasha Young, program coordinator of the CompleteLife Creative Arts Therapies program and Cancer Resource Center at IU Health.

“He just comes across really genuine. He’s able to get people to open up really quickly and feel at ease,” Young said. “Some people just have that ability and he definitely has that.”

In a hospital, it’s all white coats and doctors. Patients often feel as if they don’t get to make many choices.

They do when Medeiros is around. They get to pick the music. They get to choose if they want to sing along. They get to pick what stories they will tell.

“Just the way that Tony works, the patients feel like he is an advocate for them,” Young said. “They feel like this guy is really on their side.”

And he is. The patients are lucky to have him, she said.

But really, Medeiros said, and he knows it sounds cliché, it’s the other way around.

“These people allow me to make music and show me what it means to them,” he said. “I’m the lucky one.”

-- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.
 Reach Benbow via email dbenbow@iuhealth.org or on Twitter @danabenbow.


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