Soothing patients with songs

Linden Hills man serenades cancer patients at Fairview Southdale Hospital

An elderly man hunches over his dinner tray in the oncology ward of Fairview Southdale Hospital. He¹s wearing a hospital gown and scooping food into his mouth as his wife hovers in the doorway, scanning the area around the nurse¹s station. Diedrich Weiss, a local volunteer, passes in the hallway, guitar in his hands, and her face lights up. ³My husband wanted to say thank you,² she says, gesturing at her sick spouse.

The man stops eating, looks up and agrees, ³Music therapy is always good.²

Weiss, 37, has been volunteering at the Edina hospital once a week for the past five months. He lives in Linden Hills as a self-employed guitar teacher and producer, and a few years ago, found himself yearning for another way to use his musical talent. ³I just needed to do something with something I loved that had nothing to do with money,² he explains. ³I felt like, for me to have a worthwhile relationship with music, it had to do something with contributing to other people.²

Each Wednesday from 10 a.m.­1 p.m., Weiss fulfills his moral calling. He heads to the eighth floor of the sprawling medical campus and starts out in the hallway, strumming on his acoustic guitar for staff and patients. After a while, he selects two or three patients¹ rooms ‹ randomly or by request ‹ and gives private performances, often peppered with chitchat.

Overall, patients, staff and visitors love Weiss¹ serenades. ³You can see the noise level and what happens on the floor completely change,² says Jodi Wieczorek, one of the oncology nurses.

With a short buzzed haircut and face full of freckles, Weiss is sensitive to the mood of the ward; he adjusts his tempos and keys accordingly.

As a regular visitor to the hospital, Weiss frequently deals with death. In only a few months, he¹s accumulated numerous stories about making new friends, only to return a week later to an empty bed. In one instance, Weiss befriended a terminally ill man in his early 40s named Tim.

³He was sharing his innermost thoughts about what was going to happen to him when his body ceases to work,² Weiss recalls.

Wieczorek explains that patients often see staff and volunteers as a safe outlet for feelings that might be difficult to share with friends and family.

³There¹s a freedom in that exchange somehow,² Weiss says, referring to his ability to be both a stranger and confidant. He developed an especially close bond with Tim when, a week after their conversation, Tim brought in his own guitar for a duet.

³One of his regrets was that he didn¹t get to experience his potential as a musician,² Weiss remembers. ³He¹s an extraordinary musician. I mean, he was good.²

They moved into the hallway, Tim wearing his isolation mask, and together, began to play. Weiss took the rhythm parts while Tim held his own on the lead melody. They slid into numerous keys, playing up-tempo and slow tunes, covering folk, blue grass, jazz, and blues. After a while, a crowd gathered on the ward. Word spread around the hospital and people came from different levels, drawn to the music like mice to the Pied Piper. They played for well over an hour.

³My hands were killing me,² Weiss smiles. But he didn¹t want to stop until Tim had gotten his fill. ³It was the strangest kind of feeling of Œnot yet, not yet, not yet.¹²

Eventually, they wrapped up their set and the crowd disbursed. Weiss knew that he had given Tim a powerful gift: playing guitar for an audience one last time. ³I was bearing witness to his ability, from musician to musician,² Weiss says. When he returned to the hospital a week later, Tim had died, and Weiss learned a sad lesson.

³It¹s such a strange phenomenon, that whole sense of the human spirit wanting to just actualize what they¹re most passionate about,² he says. ³You¹ve got to do what you love; do not screw around [Š] I¹ll probably be thinking about Tim for a long time.²