Musicians on Call making patients young and old happier, one song at a time

“There are people who haven’t smiled or tapped their toes in over a week and now, they are. That’s powerful. That’s how we know we are making a difference.”

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Phil Fensel volunteer musician from Musicians On Call plays for a Jonathan Fajardo (7) patient at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago on Wednesday, October 9, 2019.

Phil Fensel, a volunteer musician from Musicians On Call, plays for seven-year-old Jonathan Fajardo, a patient at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Time

Seven-year-old Jonathan had been waiting all week to go on a field trip with his classmates. But then the little boy with the huge smile got sick. And for the second time in the past month, he was back as a patient at Ann&Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

He was crushed.

And so was his mom.

“He just had a miserable day yesterday because I told him he was going to have to miss the field trip,” said his mother Rocio Galvez, a tear cascading down her face for her little boy who was born with a bowel malrotation that has resulted in small bowel syndrome. “He was just so exhausted and so lethargic. I knew we would end up here. I told him that ‘we would make it feel like a field trip’ and he was like, ‘it’s not the same, Mom.’”

That is, until a pair from Musicians On Call walked in.

A specially trained volunteer musician and guide from the nonprofit that brings live and recorded music to the bedsides of patients in healthcare facilities, had Jonathan out of his hospital bed, clinging to a brand new teddy bear and swinging his hips as the guitarist played the “Lion King” classic “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.”

This made today special for him,” his mother said quietly. “This made things okay for a little while.”

Nurse Ashley Kinner holds 19-month-old Malachi Gardner as they listen to Phil Fensel performance, volunteer musician from Musicians On Call, visiting Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago

Nurse Ashley Kinner holds 19-month-old Malachi Gardner as they listen to Phil Fensel perform. Fensel is a volunteer musician from Musicians On Call, visiting Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Touching scenarios such as this have been playing out at Lurie Childrens Hospital since 2018, as the Chicago chapter of Musicians On Call have expanded to call the Windy City home. The organization has weekly programs not only at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, but also Chicago Methodist Senior Services and Shirley Ryan AbilityLab.

“Its nothing short of magical, what happens in those rooms,” explains Vivek Tiwary, acclaimed Broadway producer and Co-Founder of Musicians On Call. “You can feel the atmosphere in the room change. There are some dark days in those rooms, but our volunteers bring an energy of hope back in those rooms simply through a song.”

And the focus is always on the patient.

“There are people who haven’t smiled or tapped their toes in over a week and now, they are,” Tiwary said. “That’s powerful. That’s how we know we are making a difference.”

Musicians On Call began after Tiwary and fellow music industry entrepreneur Michael Solomon both lost loved ones to cancer, and realized the difference music could play for everyone involved. Currently celebrating its 20th anniversary, Musicians on Call has played for over 730,000 patients, families and caregivers in a slew of cities such as New York, Nashville, Tennessee, and now Chicago.

Xavier Jones (14) patient at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago reacts as he listens to the performance by volunteer musician Phil Fensel

Xavier Jones, 14, a patient at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago reacts as he listens to the performance by Musicians on Call volunteer Phil Fensel.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

“Chicago is a city that has a long and prolific music history, but also a very rich diversity within that music,” says Griffin of the Chicago chapter of Musicians On Call, which currently has a team of 40 volunteers that have played for over 4,600 patients.

“The musical influences of our volunteers in Chicago are many, and you just never know what you will get from someone. [Laughs] We have a volunteer that is known for playing metal music, but then you will see him in a room playing songs from “Frozen” for the younger patients.”

Indeed, the ultimate driving force behind the success of any Musicians On Call chapter is its volunteers who come from all different walks of life. Take for example volunteer musician Keenan Kamae, a United Airlines flight attendant who just happens to play the ukulele.

Musician on Call volunteers such as Phil Fensel are called upon to play everything from Megadeth to “Frozen” favorites, depending on what type of music a patient prefers.

Musician on Call volunteers such as Phil Fensel are called upon to play everything from Megadeth to “Frozen” favorites, depending on what type of music a patient prefers.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

“I’m always nervous when I play the first song,” chuckles Kamae, who routinely volunteers twice a month with Musicians On Call in Chicago. “Sometimes it takes a moment to shake off the nerves. One of the biggest challenges I face is actually picking the song. You just never know what sort of music is going to resonate with someone.”

“I’ve been in rooms where you think this older patient is going to want something from Elvis Presley, and they tell us they want to hear something by Megadeth,” adds Griffin. “You just never know. But no matter what you play, you can feel the moods of everyone change.”

At his bedside, Darius Robey, 18, enjoys a performance by Musicians on Call volunteer Phil Fensel at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.

At his bedside, Darius Robey, 18, enjoys a performance by Musicians on Call volunteer Phil Fensel at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

And yes, the power of Musicians On Call can not only be felt by the patients, but also their caregivers.

“We are all tearing up because this makes him so happy,” exclaims Ann&Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago nursing assistant Shannon Carter during a recent Musicians On Call visit, as she stands outside the room of her patient, 14-year-old Xavier, who suffers from a long list of ailments connected to his Cerebral palsy. “He’s had a rough couple of days, so this is making his week. It’s very sad because he’s been through a lot. But hearing live music is a real treat for him. It’s also a real treat for us.”

She looks down for a moment, and wipes another tear falling from her face.

“He may not be able to communicate verbally but this is just another form of communication that is helping him feel better,” she says. “And that’s what matters.”

For more information about Musicians on Call, visit musiciansoncall.org/chicago.

Tricia Despres is a local freelance writer.

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