RALEIGH — 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 wont leave you alone.
This is my lunch hour, he explains, but I realize its not really my time. Im just here to let everybody know that its already all right.
You came while I still have my hair! said Debra Duerksen, thanking him for the song. Ive 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 dont even think about lunch. I get full off of this.
In five years, hes seen patients arrive sick, leave healthy and come right back sick again. Hes 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.
Im going to keep it, says James Santiago. Its 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 hes using him to do it.
Ive spent a lot of time in hospitals. Way more than Id 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 Hells 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 sons 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. Theres no overstating the power of a strangers optimism when your nerves are jangled and your equilibrium hangs by a spiders 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 hes 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 wasnt surprised, he sings, voice soft, fingers tapping. I was just glad were 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.
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