At a couple of the hospitals I have worked at as a medical student, they have the tradition of playing the song “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” over the public address system when a child is born. Of course, I did not see what actually happened until I had my rotations in the Nursery and the Labor/Delivery Ward.
In one hospital, there was a button that was pushed behind the nurse’s station, activating a recording automatically. I remember a time when a family of three children pushed the button in turn under the watch of a beaming father. Three times the lullaby played, and three times the children laughed with delight as they welcomed their new sibling into their family.
In another hospital, the ritual was much more deliberate…the hospital operator had to be called to play the recording, and the hospital was large enough that the operator had to make sure there were not going to be any calls for assistance, or coded drills (think Code Blue) that the announcement would interrupt. The lullaby was played when the new family moved from Labor/Delivery to the Mother-Baby Unit where they would rest before heading home. The new (or newly expanded) family would be positioned, infant bundled in mother’s arms, pushed in a wheelchair by an nurse or student, and trailed by a family member with personal effects next to the automatic doors leading to the new unit. Then the operator would be called, and eventually the lullaby would be played. At this time, and only at this time, the procession would move on.
Honestly, I am a bit of a wistful romantic at heart and a sucker for ritual. So I found these times endearing. It is hard for me to be a true cynic, regardless of all that I have seen. Many times I would watch these things happen with more than a little joy. It never occurred to me that anyone would see it any other way.
The other day, though I was waiting in line to get some food at the hospital snack bar. Next to me a young woman was waiting, and the familiar song played overhead. I guess she could see me smile a little and she said, in that direct way only that the truly physically and emotionally exhausted could manage: “I hate that song! It played twice while grandmother was dying. I wish it didn’t play when someone was dying.” Of course, the things that immediately jumped into my head as I opened my mouth to reply were filled with justification. I wanted to explain the joy that I had seen; I wanted to express how it meant the birth of new life amidst pain and suffering. I wanted to explain what it meant to the new families.
Then it struck me that I just wanted to explain what it meant to me. I wanted to justify it, and that was just a way of dealing with my own pain. What been given me was the opportunity to soothe the pain of another, not just lick my own wounds and selfishly soothe my own pain. This is indeed the true calling of a physician.
So as I opened my mouth, I said: “Thank you, I’d never thought of it that way before. That must have been hard. What do you think we could do better?” Instead of trying to fix, to justify, to explain my feelings, I recognized her feelings. That simple act of recognition and acknowledgement probably did more comforting than a thousand existential platitudes.