When the first notes of Eric Clapton's Tears in Heaven hit her ears, her eyes opened wide.
She didn't know the song, but it didn't matter. The melody leapt from the dance between Milan Patel's fingers and the strings of his guitar, and that was enough.
Marsha Curry, 67, was tired, weary from a bout with cancer. She hopes her stay at a hospice will help her get well enough to go home.
"It's just hard being here," she said.
As her son Michael sat by her bed holding her hand, she watched and listened intently. Her lips curved into a smile her family hadn't seen in some time.
For about 10 minutes — three songs — Patel gave Curry and her family the gift of music. After he left to see the next patient, she used just one word to describe how that gift made her feel.
The 15-year-old Palm Harbor University student has been doing this since November, when he and four other volunteers started the Suncoast Hospice Teen Music Group. Playing every few weeks at Suncoast Brookside Hospice, they bring their enthusiasm for music to patients' bedsides.
Patel had already assembled the group when he got word in October that he had won a $2,500 grant from Scholastic Media's "Be Big in Your Community" contest.
He stated his mission in the proposal that won him the grant: "Any effort that could provide relief from sadness, depression and anxiety to people during this difficult time is 100 percent worth pursuing."
The group received the money last week, and plan on purchasing portable keyboards and music stands to expand the project. There are even plans to record a CD so patients and their families can take the gift of music with them.
Pianist Aaron Hoard, 15, said the group provides students with a way to have fun flexing their talents while serving others.
"It's kind of easy because we're just doing what we know," he said.
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Patel spent months doing research before launching the project. He read up on the palliative effects of music. He spoke with doctors who specialize in integrative medicine.
"For people at the end of their lives, one thing they can still do is accept gifts from other people," he said.
The gifts include calm songs by the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Five for Fighting and John Mayer. The group's vocalist can even sing Italian opera.
"Usually if we play something they recognize, they become more lively and energetic," said guitarist Doug Nguyen, 16. "It gives them something to remember from their past."
Jill Fowler, Suncoast Hospice teen volunteer specialist, said the young musicians underwent music-at-the-bedside training to learn to interact with patients and what kind of music to play.
"They're all so gung-ho about it because they want to share this gift of music," Fowler said.
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Hoard's fingers twirled over the piano keys, rhythmically descending when the note was right. On a nearby table, a notebook was open to a page with chord progressions. Huddled over their instruments, the musicians hit their stride.
Patel and Nguyen picked out notes in unison, matching the melody and tempo Hoard was providing. Although no one was present to sing, the lyrics seemed to emerge from the strings.
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Three of the group's four members were rehearsing Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah in a corner of the hospice's community center.
Rita Patel, Milan's mother, looked on as the teens decided what songs to play at their next performance.
"He's always been a kid with a big heart," she said. "It makes me proud."
Milan's simple desire to soothe those in difficult stages of their lives was born out of an experience his grandfather had while recovering from surgery at Moffitt Cancer Center. Lloyd Goldstein, a certified music practitioner, wheeled in his double bass and played Indian classical ragas — music that brightened Milan's grandfather's mood so much, Rita could feel it when she visited later the same day.
"It definitely lifted his spirits," she said.
When Milan heard what had happened, it made perfect sense to him. Young people could do this.
"Teenagers are much less imposing, and they could also have fun doing it," he said.
Goldstein says playing for patients is about connecting with them and delivering a unique gift of music for each individual.
The key, he said, is finding where the right sounds are.
"It's not about the performer. It's not even about the music itself. It's about finding just the right sounds at the right volume that it validates the person that's sitting there in front of you."
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For Michael Curry, the music evoked a sense of normalcy for him and his mother. "It conveys such a sense of life and the joys of life," he said
Patel, who was playing alone that day, was just glad he could make a difference. "It feels really relieving that I was able to help her in any way."
Patel hopes to grow the program by branching out to other hospices and visiting patients who live at home. His group has already touched many patients. But even at 15 years old, he sees past the immediate effects of his work.
"It's not just the patients that are being affected," he said. "It's their families and even their friends."
As the last notes of Tears in Heaven evaporated, Marsha Curry's family applauded and thanked Patel for his gift.
Marsha looked the young man in the eye and summoned the strength to be heard clearly.
"Thank you," she said.
Contact Joey Flechas at [email protected] or (727) 445-4170.