By Gary Evans, Medical Writer
Among many other things, music is a way to process pain. Such was the birth of the blues. In a similar vein, poetry has been seen as healing and therapeutic for ages. Music and poetry together can speak to the human spirit, even when it is beaten down by a relentless pandemic. At Johns Hopkins Hospital, two colleagues created a collaboration that forged the two arts into a message of resilience and hope.
First, meet the guitar player, Brian Garibaldi, MD, a pulmonologist who has cared for many COVID-19 patients as medical director of the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit.
“For me personally, music has been my primary source of release over the last 15 months, other than the time I get to spend with my family,” he says. “Particularly early on in the pandemic, our unit was the first to be activated by our hospital for COVID patients. We are one of 10 federally funded biocontainment units.”
The Hopkins unit was activated for Ebola in 2014. With so little known about SARS-CoV-2, it was opened again for the early U.S. patients.
“When we first activated, I moved out of my house because of the uncertainty of taking care of these patients. Also, we were so busy I was basically living at the hospital anyway,” he says. “I moved across the street to a hotel the hospital has a relationship with. I took my computer and my guitar.”
Playing the guitar is a way for Garibaldi to decompress. “You can ask my wife,” he says. “She’ll know if I haven’t played in a few days because I’m just a little bit more on edge.”
Pre-pandemic, he kept the guitar in his office and would sometimes take it to visit patients, particularly if they were musicians. “I could not do that during COVID,” he says. “I don’t think my guitar would hold up to the industrial [cleaning] products we use when you come out of a COVID unit. I did have the opportunity to play for my incident command team back in the early days [of the pandemic]. They were working ridiculous hours and there was a lot of stress.”
He played a combination of original music and some instrumental cover songs that included Pink Floyd and the Allman Brothers.
Sometime later, when vaccines were becoming available, Robin Lewis-Cherry, RN, a nurse manager at Johns Hopkins, wrote a poem about the pandemic that addressed both the great loss and the resilient rise to overcome it.
“Robin was a nurse on the unit where I first worked as a medical student, and then during my internship that was my home unit,” Garibaldi says. “Robin and I have known each other for 20 years. When she shared her poem at a nursing leadership meeting, I think the hospital at that point was really looking for things to lift people’s spirits. I loved her poem and they said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could set this to music?’ I had a few things I had been working on during the pandemic, and this was sort of the opportunity to finish one of those and use it as the background music to Robin’s awesome poem. It was an honor to be asked to do that.”
Lewis-Cherry’s father was a published poet. She has been writing for years.
“I usually only write for special occasions and when inspiration hits,” she says. “When the inspiration struck in March 2021, leadership was talking about how we could commemorate all that we had gone through in the past year. COVID, in my opinion, interfered with every level of your life — every part of your life. With the vaccine coming about, I thought about the pandemic possibly coming to an end. I thought about what we had lost over the past year.”
That thought is encapsulated in the opening lines of the poem:
“When the dust settles/What will we see?/For many, just empty spaces/Where loved ones used to be.”1
The loss was profound for so many colleagues, but Lewis-Cherry shifted the tone of the poem to ask whether little things, gestures, and simple acts could be fully appreciated again.
“Will we appreciate being able to see someone smile? You can’t do that though a mask,” she says. “And to be with your loved ones, your family, your friends, having a meal together or having a simple hug. I think a lot of that we had taken for granted before the pandemic hit.”
During the pandemic, Johns Hopkins has emphasized that leaders look out for their teams, point them to available resources, and encourage them to take time off.
“I read [the poem] to my staff because of everything they went through,” Lewis-Cherry says. “I dedicated it to them because it was a very challenging year. They showed up and they did their best.”
The poem’s larger message addresses the striking divisions seen when an election year and a pandemic coincide. “I wanted to be hopeful that a lot of things that have driven us apart as a people and nation, maybe that could be put aside,” she says. “We could realize that we are all human and we all have the same needs and feelings. We are more alike than not alike. To rally in that and to know that as a human race we can be resilient — we’ve proven that over the centuries. But we have to want that.”
In concluding the poem, she invokes the image of the phoenix — a mythological bird that is consumed by flame but always rises from the ashes.
“The one thing this has shown us/And this is without a doubt/How resilient, strong, and determined/We have been throughout./And so as we see an ending to all this grief and pain/May we rise from the ashes like the Phoenix/And let humanity reign.”
- Lewis-Cherry R, Garabaldi B. “When the Dust Settles.” May 11, 2021.