Area musicians rally to entertain cancer patients, families at University of Maryland Medical Center holiday event - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Area musicians rally to entertain cancer patients, families at University of Maryland Medical Center holiday event

Anyone who has ever hosted a sizable gathering knows the difficulty one encounters when lining up the entertainment. In most cases, even a proficient pianist needs to be booked several months in advance. So when Dr. Ravi Krishnan, an oncologist at University of Maryland Medical Center Midtown Campus (the former Maryland General Hospital), learned at the eleventh hour that the local church choir he had relied on to provide entertainment for a Christmas party was unavailable, he was perplexed.

What to do?

The Christmas party in question is an annual luncheon Krishnan’s practice hosts for cancer patients and their families. Now in its seventeenth year, the gathering has grown from a modest get-together to a veritable feast which touches close to two hundred members of the west Baltimore community.

Krishnan’s colleague, Dr. Dan Howard, suggested he get in touch with John Heizer – the choir master at Zion Church of Baltimore. Heizer’s first response was to volunteer his musical services and then to reach out to a number of people in his own circle of friends. Through the magic of email, social media and a determined contact at the Baltimore Post-Examiner, Heizer was joined in the hospital auditorium last Friday by three talented guitarists, a pony-tailed tenor, a popular young bluegrass banjo player, and an operatic soprano with a ukelele.

Add to that group the Raven’s mascot Poe, a visit by Kris Kringle, and Krishnan’s daughter Archana performing a delightful Indian dance and the final result was a bit of Christmas magic.

Dr. Ravi Krishnan with a friend from the North. (Stacy Atwell)

Dr. Ravi Krishnan with a friend from the North. (Stacy Atwell)

“The people who come to this party look forward to it the entire year,” Krishnan explained. “It’s an event they actually mark in their calendar.”

“For some people, this is the big social event of the year because they have so many medical problems and they are so weak. They go to the doctors’ offices and maybe to church sometimes, and that’s about all their life revolves around. When you have a social gathering like this where you can interact and can have so much fun and food, it’s just so important to have that one good day of the year. You spend all year doing radiation therapy and chemo therapy; it’s crucial to have a day where can go and just forget everything.”

“Last year, we were looking at getting six inches of snow, so we considered cancelling because we thought ‘surely nobody is going to come.’ Then we started getting calls saying, ‘We’re coming, we’re coming. Don’t cancel.’ So we actually went ahead and held the event. There were about half the number of people, but it’s reflective of how important it is. It’s also a way of giving them a chance to see all of the doctors and the other patients they may have met. Some of our patients have passed away, but their surviving family members continue to come and develop bonds with the staff and other patients and their families. It becomes a sort of reunion. Some patients even help other patients who have no other way to get here.”

Planning for the party is a year-long endeavor. Krishnan smilingly said that his wife Uma is really the backbone of the get-together.

“My wife and daughter come. Some of the nurses and secretaries, some of the staff of the hospital. They all pitch in.”

“My wife collects things we use for the gift bags everywhere we go. If a charity offers something nice for making a donation, she will write a check and then take that item and put it in a gift bag. She once saw a great deal on sweat shirts, so she went up to the cashier and said, ‘Have you got 150 of these?’ Of course, the clerk said, ‘No, but we can order them for you.’ We have a corner of the garage where she stockpiles the items she collects.”

Harriett Lashley enjoys a holiday tradition. (Stacy Atwell)

Harriett Lashley enjoys a holiday tradition. (Stacy Atwell)

Harriett R. Lashley is one of the dozens of patients who looks forward to the fraternal feast.

“I’m one of (Dr. Krishnan’s) patients. He invites us to this luncheon every year; we really enjoy ourselves. They give us nice gifts, and we see a lovely program with these soloists, and we sing along with them. It’s spiritual, too. It’s enjoyed by all.”

Holding a holiday party for cancer patients resonates with W. Eugene Edgerton, Chief Medical Officer at the University of Maryland Medical Center Midtown Campus.

“I’ve been (employed) here for five years and I remember the first time I came to this event, there were probably a little under 100 people. This event has just morphed. Now that shows a couple of things. One is, these are cancer patients in remission, so that means Dr. Krishnan is pretty good at what he does. Two, is that it just goes to show how much love the community has for the physicians here – particularly Dr. Krishnan – and what this place means to them. I think it’s a good thing.”

“This is consistent with the mission of the hospital when it was Maryland General and it’s been here since 1881. It’s always been a hospital for the Baltimore community… the place where Baltimoreans feel safe to get their healthcare. They get better this way.”

Also weighing in was Dr. Miles G. Harrison, a surgeon at the UM Medical Center Midtown Campus.

“I could talk forever (about this event). Dr Krishnan has actually treated two of my family members. I’m an oncological breast surgeon, and many of the people sitting here are patients we have in common. There is a community feeling in this room, which is certainly engendered by the holiday, but more importantly by the feeling they get when they come to University of Maryland Midtown Campus. It’s grown every single year. It’s truly a family affair.”

John Heizer and Lisa Salkov (Anthony C. Hayes)

John Heizer and Lisa Salkov offer Christmas carols with a Hawaiian twist. (Anthony C. Hayes)

Joining the family this year was the giving group of musicians who stepped up to help out at a moments notice. The group included uke playing soprano Lisa Salkov who was accompanied by John Heizer on a portable piano. The keyboard (and some amplification equipment) was loaned by singer/songwriter Teporah Bilezikian. Guitarist Gary Maragos took an extended lunch hour to serenade the audience, as did two staff physicians: urologist Bob Dewberry and Enrique Alvarez – the Head of Psychiatry.

Meg Bowen brought her guitar and MC experience to the stage, along with 125 party favors she and her mother put together the night before. And bluegrass favorite, Jacob Panic, soloed on a few traditional tunes, then backed several of the other performers.

As the luncheon came to a close, Panic summed up the feeling of the assembled musicians.

“It’s a gift to be able to do something that you love that makes someone else happy. I happen to think that it’s a selfish thing because it makes me feel so good. It’s a magical thing; a real pleasure.”

Meg Bowen plays Santa for a group of happy party-goers. (Stacy Atwell)

Meg Bowen plays Santa for a group of happy party-goers. (Stacy Atwell)

(Editor’s note – staff photographer Stacy Atwell and writer Wayne C. Countryman contributed to this story.  More pictures of this event may be found by visiting flickr)


About the author

Anthony C. Hayes

Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A former reporter at The Washington Herald and an occasional contributor to the Voice of Baltimore, Tony's poetry, humor and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore!; Magic Octopus Magazine; Destination Maryland; Alvarez Fiction and Tales of Blood and Roses. Contact the author.
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