Young Duke Medicine patients face treatments, transplants with music

Dec. 07, 2013 @ 12:37 PM

When Tray Batson visits Duke Hospital, he wheels around a cart filled with an acoustic guitar, glockenspiels and drums. He’s the music man to young patients, the singer who gets their mind off of needle sticks, transplants and long hospital stays.

On Thursday, Batson placed a rainbow glockenspiel in front of 4-year-old Jasmin. She stared at him with big eyes, the mask over her face almost reaching her eyelashes. Five different lines were connected to her; a pump and IV stand filled her with medicine.

“We haven’t played music together for a long, long time,” Batson said to Jasmin and her father, Juan Vasquez. Batson said he was going to play the Dora the Explorer theme song for her. “We have played this before and I remember you were very good at it.”

He has traveled the halls of Duke Medicine for 10 years, using his acoustic guitar and voice to bring smiles to those going through painful procedures. He said he always wanted to work with kids – He started holding music sessions in local preschools and daycares.

But in 2003, a friend clued him into Duke, and he remembers one of his first days on the Duke pediatrics floor, meeting an 18-month-old patient who was shielded from the world by multiple doors and masks.

“To go in there and to play music, and to see how positively he responded to it and how much it meant to him, was really, really cool,” Batson said.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, his sessions could be filled with 5-year-olds or 13-year-olds. One loves the Hokey Pokey, the other loves Dance Dance Revolution. His job is finding the middle ground, on the fly.

He gets small windows of time with patients, since he spends about 12 hours a week, through grant funding, at Duke, to include visits to clinics and individual patient rooms.

When Batson receives a small glimmer of a patient’s personality, he remembers those moments. The animals they like. What instrument they’re drawn to. If they like the loud songs or the slow ones.

They’ll sing about superheroes, cars and animals. They’ll share instruments and dance to the beat.

Batson said he always wanted to be a rock star. When he moved to Chapel Hill in 2000, it was to be part of a band.

He now plays in “The Breaks,” a pop rock band based out of Pittsboro, and “Joe Tullos and the Bold Chorus,” which has played in venues such as Durham’s Motorco.

His most successful band venture, he said, has been “Baron Von Rumblebuss,” which plays original children’s songs such as “Bubble Wrap” and “Rock Robots.”

“It’s a disease,” he said. “Once you start playing in bands, it’s hard to stop.”

While he sang to Jasmin on Thursday, a former patient walked into the room, whom Batson recognized immediately. Batson instantly recruited him to help with a rendition of Jingle Bells, holding out a red tambourine.

“I can do Jingle Bells,” said 18-year-old Wayne Hewett III, grabbing the instrument. He was admitted to Duke Hospital when he was 15 years old for a bone marrow transplant.

“I had fun up here,” Hewett said. “… (Batson’s) always doing a song for different people.  He’s creative.”

“Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg!” Batson sang, as Duke coworkers and Hewett jingled tambourines and maracas.

Jasmin glanced around the room, still not saying a word as everyone jammed around her.

Her family is from Winston-Salem, and her parents trade off staying with her in the hospital. They’ve spent seven months at Duke for a bone marrow transplant, and she’s already had two surgeries for heart problems and spent time in pediatric intensive care.

Vasquez, Jasmin’s father, said it’s been hard. They have a 13-month-old child at home that still needs looking after. Then, there are the hospital bills.

When Jasmin feels well, he says, she’ll participate in everything. The music gets her out of her hospital room.

“Hopefully, she’ll be back home soon, all healthy,” he said. “We’re still hanging in there.”

Batson says it’s all about perspective. When he constantly runs into families and sees first-hand what they’re coping with, a bad day can never be that bad. 

“Goodbye, goodbye Jasmin,” he sang, to the little girl hooked up to a machine, sitting in her father’s lap.

“It was so good to see you, to play some songs for you.”