The Cardiotonics held their first and only rehearsal about five minutes before showtime on Christmas Day, in a 10th floor conference room at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“All the sopranos here, altos over here, tenors here, basses and baritones there, and all the people who only sing in the shower over here,” Dr. Thomas Michel, a cardiologist holding a red accordion, told the dozen or so young doctors and others — many in blue scrubs, white coats, and antlers or Santa hats. “These patients are too sick to be with their families on Christmas. Our goal is to make them feel like they’re with the Brigham family.”
After practice runs of “Silent Night” and “Dona Nobis Pacem,” the group was ready. They walked toward their first patient room, accompanied by Michel’s upbeat accordion music.
The Cardiotonics — which means medicine for the heart — have been caroling at the Brigham for eight years. Michel, 64, who is Jewish, has been playing Christmas music for the sick and elderly since he was a teenager in Portland, Ore., as a way to make the day more meaningful for both him and his audience.
As the group strolled through the halls singing, other patients, their families, and hospital employees shot videos on their iPhones, smiling and singing along. They stopped in patients’ rooms for a song or two each. Some patients requested “Feliz Navidad”; others wanted “O Come, All Ye Faithful” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
“We wish you a speedy recovery,” Michel told patients.
They entered the room of patient Jim Shaer, 61, of Melrose, who wore a Santa hat and wept as they sang “Silent Night.” He bowed his head. After the last line, he murmured: “Thank you.”
Shaer said he grew up as an altar boy, and this year was his first not attending Mass on Christmas. The carols evoked strong memories for him and brought a sense of holiness.
“My heart has reached about its point where it can’t really serve me anymore,” Shaer said. “You start feeling sorry for yourself, that you’re not with your family” on Christmas, he said, but being serenaded by the doctors “was very moving.”
As the group sang a Hanukkah song through the halls, a man visiting his father-in-law leapt from the room. During a lull, he started singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” prompting the group to join in with harmonies.
“It’s such a nice moment of doctors giving back from the heart,” said the man, James Bruce, 58, of Brockton, who trained as a singer. “It’s a real special moment joining common people with something they can understand irrespective of their languages.”
Many of the singers over the years have been Jewish, Muslim, or others who volunteered to work on the holiday, though some were Christians who had no choice. Some said they looked forward to it every year.
Dr. Yvonne Okaka, an internal medicine resident, said she was sad to miss out on her family’s Christmas but she loved singing for the patients.
“It’s definitely an emotional experience for the patients and for us too, just because of the songs,” she said. “This is probably not our first choice of where we’d want to be, but I feel lucky to be here for the patients.”
The cheery music was a welcome distraction for many from some grim realities playing out across the hospital. At one point, a nurse guided the group away from one room, saying the patient inside had just passed away. Later, doctors said, a young patient couldn’t host the carolers because she was receiving chemotherapy.
In another room, Susan Martillotta, 70, of Cotuit, cried as she sang along to “Silent Night,” despite tubes in her nose. She said Michel, one of her physicians, sang to her on her birthday a few days earlier.
“I’ve just been blessed by a great team of doctors,” Martillotta said. “It’s not what I would’ve chosen, but it’s been a blessing. He’s been unbelievable.”
Caroling isn’t the only way Michel has found to weave his passion for medicine with his love for the accordion, which he taught himself 12 years ago after years of playing violin and piano. In November, he and his Moscow-based research partner presented their award-winning research on oxygen’s toxic effects on the heart in a musical performance titled “The Chemogenetics Tango.” In 2017, he greeted an Iranian researcher at Logan International Airport playing an Iranian folk song he learned on the fly. The researcher’s arrival had been delayed for eight months because of President Trump’s travel ban.
“Music and science both transcend international boundaries,” Michel said.
To Michel, the music represents more than just a little bit of joy for people. It holds a deeper meaning.
Last year, one of Michel’s patients requested “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” He didn’t know the song, so he looked it up on YouTube. While the group sang it to her, she cried. Afterward, she said she had listened to that song while her husband was overseas during World War II. She missed him again as he had died three months earlier.
“It’s a sign that there are many ways that we can connect with one another in ways that are mutually inspirational and moving,” Michel said. “That makes Christmas special even for those of us who view it as a day where we have light traffic, easy parking, and Chinese food for dinner.”
The world, he said, needs more moments like those.