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Florida Hospital Serves Concerts In Bed

Jamal Davis in his tiny bed.
Nick Evans

NPR Music has built a sizable following for its tiny desk concerts—stripped down performances at music critic Bob Boilen’s desk in Washington DC.  And now a Gainesville hospital has adopted the format to highlight its Arts in Medicine program.

The University of Florida’s Shands Hospital in Gainesville is a sprawling campus straddling a state highway.  There’s a tunnel running underneath connecting two of the buildings.  Up on the fifth floor there’s a guy named Jamal Davis who loves to sing.

From the hall you can hear a few strains.  The guitar player is Ricky Kendall.  He’s part of the hospital’s Arts in Medicine program.  Davis is the singer.  He’s smiling broadly laid up in the hospital bed, surrounded by an array of monitors.  There are tubes coming out of his arm.  So what’s he doing here?

“Wow that’s a long story.  You got seven years?” he asks, laughing.   “I first was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy—just an enlarged heart pretty much—in 2008 during my senior year of high school.”

After that diagnosis, he got a pacemaker and defibrillator.  That worked pretty well until 2012.  He ended up back in the hospital, and this time doctors set him up with an LVAD, or left ventricular assist device, to help the struggling half of his heart.  Six months later, Davis was in Orlando pursuing musical theater.  But more recently his condition started deteriorating.

“I moved from Orlando February 1 to live with my parents.” Davis says.  “Then I was admitted into the hospital March 6, and I’ve been here ever since.  So at the end of this month it will be three months, and I’ve been here waiting on a heart.”

About a month ago, some of the nurses sent word to the hospital’s Arts in Medicine program that Davis really likes to sing. 

That’s where Kendall comes in.

“I don’t think you knew I was coming.” Kendall says to Davis.  “And so you were kind of like, ‘Hey… OK, you have a guitar.  Alright.’”

“But what the nurse had told me before I walked in was try to get him to sing,” Kendall says. “And I said, OK, I’ll try.”

So, Kendall played a few songs and then he broached the question.

“Would you want to sing something?  And he was kind of like was really reluctant for a few asks and then I was like—I pushed a little,” Kendall says.  “I was like c’mon, I heard you could sing.  So he was like do you know that song by John Mayer, slow dancing in a burning room?

Davis and Kendall's cover of Slow Dancing in a Burning Room.

Davis leans up and props himself on an elbow, while Kendall starts strumming the chords.  As Davis starts singing his eyelids drift down, and he holds his knee.   

“Jamal is an extraordinary example of how the arts can impact a patient’s experience in this hospital,” Arts in Medicine Director Tina Mullen says.  “I hope that’s what the story becomes about.”

Mullen says the hospital experience takes control away from patients—separating them from most of their normal routine.  But providing a creative outlet can help restore their sense of self, and this can lead to better clinical outcomes.

“One of the things that we’re very quick to say, though, in Arts in Medicine, is that art alone is not going to cure anyone, but art does heal somebody,” Mullen says.

Singing is a big part of Davis’ life, and he says the program makes handling the hospital a little bit easier.

“I think it’s really cool to have an outlet musically to express yourself or just remove yourself from a situation that really you can’t help or change,” Davis says.

The other day, Davis and Kendall played a handful of Boyz II Men songs.  The nurses were at the door singing along.  He and Davis haven’t written originals together yet, but they’re working on it.

Nick Evans came to Tallahassee to pursue a masters in communications at Florida State University. He graduated in 2014, but not before picking up an internship at WFSU. While he worked on his degree Nick moved from intern, to part-timer, to full-time reporter. Before moving to Tallahassee, Nick lived in and around the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years. He listens to far too many podcasts and is a die-hard 49ers football fan. When Nick’s not at work he likes to cook, play music and read.