Shaffer: Eugene Taylor brings a soothing rhythm at Rex

jshaffer@newsobserver.comFebruary 3, 2013 

  • More information Learn more about Eugene Taylor and see videos of his performances at www.djembetalk.com

— In burgundy scrubs, Eugene Taylor strides into the Rex Hospital cancer center with a djembe drum tucked under his arm, whistling the theme to “Sanford & Son” and asking politely if any of the chemotherapy patients might enjoy a song.

The women look up from newspapers, crossword puzzles and their laps – caps on their heads, IV tubes in their arms, bracing themselves for baldness, nausea and exhaustion.

That all falls away as Taylor taps out a slow rhythm. Eyes close, heads bob, and a row of cancer patients mouth the words to “Dock of the Bay,” listening to Taylor sing about loneliness that won’t leave you alone.

“This is my lunch hour,” he explains, “but I realize it’s not really my time. I’m just here to let everybody know that it’s already all right.”

“You came while I still have my hair!” said Debra Duerksen, thanking him for the song. “I’ve got a very nice wig, for a woman going on 39.”

Every day at 12:30 p.m., Taylor starts his rounds, serenading the sick. He works as a transporter at Rex, rolling patients in wheelchairs, humming and whistling to them, chirping like a bird. At lunchtime, he skips his meal to sing. He asked permission five years ago, on his second week of work.

“What I eat every day for breakfast is oatmeal and a banana,” says Taylor, 47. “I don’t even think about lunch. I get full off of this.”

In five years, he’s seen patients arrive sick, leave healthy and come right back sick again. He’s watched them die, and sung them “Amazing Grace” in their last hours. He sings the theme from “The Andy Griffith Show” in radiation/oncology. On some days, he rides up and down in the Rex elevator for an hour, tapping his drum for hundreds of people – five at a time.

On Thursday, a man stopped Taylor in the hallway asking him to play for his father-in-law in room 5089. Taylor already knows the sick man. He sang to him three months ago, and the son-in-law still has an iPhone video of the experience.

“I’m going to keep it,” says James Santiago. “It’s like a testimony of how God uses people. He did this on his own time. My father-in-law thinks, ‘The Lord in encouraging me, and he’s using him to do it.’ ”

I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals. Way more than I’d like.

Never for me. Three times for my son: 11 days in the NICU at UNC Hospitals, four days at WakeMed and three days at Rex.

Despite outstanding care at all three, every minute inside those hospitals felt like being stranded in Hell’s bus terminal. You pace. You go for coffee. You watch “Toy Story 2” a fifth time. You try not to stare at all the beeping monitors.

I think that if Eugene Taylor had walked into my son’s room on any of those occasions, whistled “Wheels on the Bus” and tapped on his djembe, I would have cried till my shirt collar was soaked. There’s no overstating the power of a stranger’s optimism when your nerves are jangled and your equilibrium hangs by a spider’s web.

Whatever Rex is paying Taylor, they ought to double it. He is one of those rare people to whom peace comes easily, for whom tranquility is uncomplicated.

With his lunch hour nearly over, Taylor stops to see a last patient, an elderly woman he’s visited enough to know by name. He tells her how much better she looks, making up a song as he goes.

“I just wanted to say when the sun rose this morning, I wasn’t surprised,” he sings, voice soft, fingers tapping. “I was just glad we’re still alive. Another day the Lord has made. Are you glad in it?”

From her hospital bed, eyes tired and arms red with sores, the patient smiles at Taylor and tell him yes. Yes, she is glad for this day, and for the music that Taylor brought her.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4818

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