jim murdoch
jim murdoch


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> How I met Alma


I have been working as a musician at a San Francisco hospital and cancer center for the past 14 years, playing music for people who are recovering from surgery, receiving treatment, chemotherapy or radiation, for their care givers, friends and for the staff. The following is a true story and all the names have been changed.

How I Met Alma

© Jim Murdoch 2006 all rights reserved

One day in August 2005, while I was playing the dulcimer on 6 East, the surgical inpatient unit, the social worker asked me if I could work with a patient on piano.

"She has a piano her husband bought her but she doesn't know how to play. Maybe you could help her. She's been in the hospital for a long time, almost a year, and the exercise would be good for her manual dexterity. If nothing else, it would give her something to do." When I went in to see Ms. Valerio she had already put tape with numbers on the keys of her piano. She showed me the instruction booklet which listed the notes of the songs by number. "You're ready to go," I said.

I couldn't help smiling to myself a little. "Yes, I'm ready," was her reply. We started with 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.' I wrote out the numbers for the notes for the right hand above the lyrics, and after she'd played through it once or twice successfully she announced, "Okay, but I want to play with both hands! Maybe there are some exercises you can show me for my fingers. They are weak, especially my left hand, " she exclaimed, wiggling her third and fourth fingers. "Alma, you seem very determined." "Do you mean goals ? " "Yes, goals." "I have goals. I want to get well, I want to go home and I want to learn to play the piano."

I showed her how to play a scale with each hand, with the traditional fingering and an exercise she could do with just her ring and pinky finger on each hand, and then we moved on to the left hand. I showed her 3 note chords for the accompaniment.

"I want to learn to play 'Happy Birthday' for my daughter's birthday." "When is her birthday?" "November 28." "Well, we have almost three months and you've pretty much learned it the first week, so you'll be fine. We'll practice a scale to warm up and then the right hand in short sections, then the left hand in short sections. Then we'll try both hands in short sections and we'll practice singing the melody with the chords, and then singing with both hands. This is how I practice even now, in simple short sections. Your brain will put the sections together. There was a man in China who was in prison. He was a classical pianist and was not allowed to play the piano for 14 years, but he practiced mentally every day, imagining the keys and the notes on the pages in his mind. When he was released he could still play the songs he'd been practicing while he was in prison."

"Really ?" "Sure. I mean he had to build up the strength in his fingers again but he didn't lose anything. So it helps to imagine your notes on the piano while you're lying in bed, to imagine in your mind playing a scale or even to just sing the song to yourself."

As I got to know her, I learned that Alma had been in the hospital for ten months because her skin produced defective collagen and would not heal properly. She did not have cancer. She had undergone 3 or 4 major surgeries to graft synthetic skin onto the wounds, but none of the procedures had worked well enough for her to go home.

Alma was 28 years old and had a six year old daughter and a 19 month old son. Her son was only 8 months old when Alma was hospitalized. Her husband came every day to see her, usually after work. He drove 30 miles from the East Bay across the Bay Bridge in rush hour traffic, and her children would come to visit a couple times a week.


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