The hospital is the last place anyone wants to be on Christmas, especially during a pandemic. But not Dr. Thomas Michel. For the past decade, the 65-year-old cardiologist and a dozen or so doctors have roamed the halls of Brigham and Women’s Hospital singing holiday carols to the soundtrack of Michel’s upbeat accordion music.
But like nearly every tradition this year, the pandemic forced the so-called Cardiotonics — meaning medicine for the heart — to adjust their typical performance to comply with COVID-19 guidelines. Michel consulted with the hospital epidemiologist who gave him the green light to substitute humming for singing. A computer with a mix of popular carols pre-recorded by Brigham health care workers was wheeled to various wards. And the choir shared their melodies, humming all the way.
“They’ll be humming in three-part harmony,” Michel said Friday afternoon before the performances. “At least.”
Among the carols recorded were “Silent Night,” “Deck the Halls,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Feliz Navidad,” and “Rock of Ages.”
On a typical Christmas, Michel and his melodious crew will sing for 30 to 40 patients in all wings of the hospital. For many, the cheery music is a welcome distraction from the somber circumstances that landed them in the hospital during the holiday season. This year — the deadliest in US history — has strained hospital systems, sapped health care workers, and ravaged hundreds of thousands of lives.
So despite the adjustments, Michel saw the Cardiotonics as a much-needed and welcome reprieve.
“It’s something that has become a beloved tradition and I’m glad that despite the pandemic we can sustain that because I think we need it now more than ever,” said Michel, who is Jewish.
He admits the holiday tunes are not for everyone. During rounds on Christmas Eve, Michel casually asked a patient if he enjoyed carols. He received an emphatic: “I hate them.” To others, though, the caroling is the stuff of legend. One patient asked gleefully if he was “the doctor with the red accordion.” Last year, a choir of white-coated sopranos, altos, tenors, basses and baritones serenaded patients tethered to tubes and confined to hospital beds.
Dr. Julia Jezmir, a third-year internal medicine resident, described a moment last Christmas when a patient sang along with tears flowing from his eyes. The doctor looked around the room and all 20 carolers — a collection of doctors young and old, tie-wearers and antler-wearers — were crying as well.
“Caroling is one of the more meaningful moments of my residency,” said Jezmir. “I made sure to work during the Christmas holiday bloc specifically for it. There’s something about the shared humanity of the moment. Something that reminds us we’re all in this journey together.”
Michel, who doubles as a researcher and teacher, returned to the cardiology wards this week after a months-long hiatus. He received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Monday. Upon seeing him in the hallways, nurses eagerly asked if the Cardiotonics were making the rounds this year. He was happy to report they were.
“I hope this time next year we’ll have the return of the Cardiotonics in full voice and force,” said Michel.