By Chaya Murali, MS4
When I was in the first grade, I asked my parents to buy me a harmonica for Christmas. We were newly immigrated to the United States at the time, and looking back on it, I think it might have been my first Christmas present ever.
I don’t remember where 6-year-old Chaya got it in her head that a harmonica would be a fun thing to have, but somehow, I did. As children do, I played with the thing for maybe a few months, after which it was relegated to some corner of our home. I never learned how to play it, and to this day it remains inside a junk drawer in my desk back in my childhood bedroom.
I haven’t thought about my harmonica in a long time, but the other day I had a patient who brought it back into my mind. He was an elderly Hispanic gentleman with type I neurofibromatosis. Our visit was an annual checkup, nothing too special. When I was done examining him, I went to find my attending to present the patient to her. I found that she was busy, so I walked back into the patient’s room and told him I’d work on the computer while we waited for the attending to be free.
My friendly patient asked, “Do you mind if I tell you some stories while we wait? I have a lot of stories.” He chuckled as he said this, and I could tell he had something to say. So I said “Sure,” and as I typed up our encounter, he talked to me. He told me about the neighborhood where he lives and the bus route he took to get to the clinic. He talked about his Jamaican girlfriend, who made him a delicious goat dish one night.
“I told her I wanted to go out to a restaurant,” he said, “but she told me that in Jamaica, a woman would be ashamed to go out to dinner, because that would mean she couldn’t cook herself!” So his girlfriend asked him what he wanted to eat. He said goat, and she said “Take me to the market,” where she bought all the ingredients to make him a delicious meal. “Best goat I’ve had,” he said, satisfied.
Next, he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a harmonica. He told me he gave them out to young men and women at his church. “One of them went overseas,” he said. Years later, that very young man tapped my patient on the shoulder in church. He held up the harmonica from all those years ago, and told my patient, “This harmonica got me through so many tough nights out there. Thank you for this.”
My elderly patient teared up as he said this last part. As a veteran himself, he probably felt happy to know that he helped another young serviceman (because I can only assume that the boy who went overseas was in the military). It was a touching moment to watch my patient express his joy at having touched another life.
And who knows? Maybe he touched another life that day, too. I might dig up that old harmonica and finally learn to play it. It might help me get through the long nights of residency that lie ahead.