In my last post I wrote about my latest venture into learning how to play the bagpipes. Now after several months of practice, I have made the transitition to be playing on the full set instead of only the practice chanter. One of the reason why I wanted to learn to play in the first place was so that we had a way of better honoring those patients at the hospital who pass away while inpatient.
I had been practicing every day in an effort to be able to keep my tone steady and all of the reeds sounding at the same time. One day last week, I received a text message on my day off from a co-worker updating me on the status of one of our long time patients who had recently been placed on hospice. The message simply stated: “We may need a piper tonight.”
Now, up until this point, I hadn’t thought about playing for our patients yet. I didn’t feel like I was to that level yet. But I was torn at the same time because I wanted to be able to honor this patient, who I had cared for over the past 3 years. I immediately put my pipes together and spent the next several hours practicing Amazing Grace over and over and over until I had pushed my body to the point where I couldn’t play anymore. I decided to make a recording and send it along to my co-workers.
“Now, I want you to be brutally honest. Tell me if it sucks. You won’t hurt my feelings. If it doesn’t sound good, I’m not going to play it. I don’t want to ruin the solemnity of the occassion.”
I received a response several minutes later….
“I just played this in the nurse’s station. You just gave us all goosebumps. Pack your pipes.”
Nervously, I set my instrument case by the back door to make sure I took them as I was heading out in the morning. The patient had made it through the night and all the next day. They passed away early the following morning. I didn’t receive a call because it was still in the middle of the night, the night shift nurse didn’t know to call me, and playing bagpipes at 5 am when everyone else on the unit was asleep wouldn’t really go over that well. I felt defeated that I wasn’t able to honor them, but at the same time felt relieved that I still would have time to hone my craft before an actual performance.
News had traveled fast that I had made the recording. Soon everyone I walked by was asking me to play it for them. It even reached the ears of the other long term care units at the facility. Several days ago, the Hospice Interdisciplinary Team was on our unit to conduct rounds with our other patients who were on hospice status. They asked me if I had my bagpipes with me that day because there was another patient on another unit that they didn’t seem to think would be making it to the end of the day. I said that I hadn’t brought them today. It was about that time that my wife texted me to tell me that she was going to be out shopping with her mother and if there was anything that I needed. I quickly texted her back asking her to swing by the hospital with my bagpipes.
I went back into the breakroom, closed the door, assembled and tuned my pipes. I was ready for the call to come. With an hour left in my shift, I received a call, but it wasn’t the one I was expecting. One of the practices that we have implemented at our facility is to have a small ceremony honoring the life of the person who is near death. The family is usually present, all available staff gather in the room. Kind words are said, prayers are offered up, and calming words are said over the patient. The call I received was from a nurse manager on the other long term care unit. She was asking if I would play Amazing Grace after the ceremony.
“They haven’t passed away?”
“No, not yet. But I heard you warming up earlier, and I really think it would mean a lot to the family if you played.”
After being taken aback for several moments I agreed and began heading to the next building over, bagpipes in tow. I received several strange looks from other staff members not knowing what to think of a nurse carrying bagpipes. I met up with the nurse manager and said that I would stay out in the hallway due to the close quarters and the sheer uncontrollable volume the Great Highland Bagpipes produce. Since I had my ear plugs in, I told her to give me a signal and I would start playing.
The ceremony lasted about 5 minutes. I could see from inside that they had gone around the room giving whomever desired an opportunity to speak. The chaplain then led everyone in prayer and I got my signal. I could hear my heartbeat pounding in my ears from nervousness. What if I hit a wrong note? What if my tone isn’t steady? What if I don’t blow hard enough? No time for any of that now. I blew up the bag, struck in the drones, and began to play. I could see those present mouthing the lyrics.
“Amaaaaaazing Graaaace how sweeeeeet the sound, that saved a wretch like meeeeeeeeee”
I had made it halfway through the song when my anxiety got the better of me and I began squeezing the bag too hard. The added pressure caused two out of my three drones to close off and quit playing. CRAP!!!! Well, I can’t get them back again, that would require letting off the pressure and causing the instrument to make Chewbacca like noises. Best follow the advice of every music instructor I’ve ever had and play through it! I got to the end of the song, cut off the pipes, and stood there for a moment. My breathing was heavy from playing so hard, my abs ached, and I was drenched with sweat. Through my earplugs, I could hear other patients who had come out into the hallway after hearing me singing the second verse of the song. I looked around the room and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. I quickly left to return to my home unit, number 1: to save myself from any embarrasment, and number 2: it was nearing change of shift and I needed to give report to my replacement.
As I was waiting for the elevator to arrive, I heard a voice coming from the nurse’s station.
“Holy Crap! Those were real bagpipes!?!?!?” one of the other staff members manning the desk exclaimed.
“Um yeah. I’ve only been playing for a few months,” I said sheepishly.
“Seriously???? We thought that was a recording!!!! That was awesome!”
“Thanks,” I said blushing as I got into the elevator.
Later in the corridor, the Hospice physician and nurse practitioner had caught up with me. I was struggling to get the security door unlocked with my hands full with the pipes. They were very pleased and stated how happy the family was for me to do this for their loved one. My anxiety melted away and was replaced by pride and honor. I could feel my blood pressure and pulse begin to return to normal. Now that my first time is over and done with, I look forward to hopefully starting a new tradition.