Singing surgeon puts liver cancer patient at ease during COVID-19 pandemic
Kellie Bramlet Blackburn
Jon Humphrey was apprehensive about having his chemotherapy port installed. In June 2020, he was preparing to start chemotherapy for bile duct cancer after months of mysterious symptoms: weight loss and a hard lump on his stomach that he thought might be a hernia in January, feelings of fatigue in February, bloating and discomfort in March and April. And now, he had traveled from his home in Salt Lake City to begin a clinical trial.
The chemotherapy port would make that possible. A chemotherapy port, also called an implanted port, is placed into a vein in the chest and makes it easier for IV medications and fluids to be given. It requires limited maintenance and can stay in place for years.
Typically, patients receive local anesthesia with sedation during a port installation procedure, but because of a health condition, Jon needed a lower dose of medication. He was nervous about the pain. But physician assistant Elizabeth Sutherland assured him it would be OK.
In fact, it might even be entertaining. Ervin Brown, M.D., the surgeon performing the installation, is known for singing to his patients.
In the operating room, Jon was immediately put at ease.
“Everyone was so happy to be there and working together so seamlessly,” he says.
Brown asked him what song Jon would like him to sing. He requested “What a Wonderful World.”
“I came out of there on cloud nine and haven’t had a problem since,” Jon says.
Coming to MD Anderson for bile duct cancer treatment
Jon had first come to MD Anderson after his local doctors identified metastatic tumors in his liver, and a family member urged him to travel to Houston.
“MD Anderson is the place to go,” Jon says. “All they do is cancer and they know how to treat it.”
The recommendation helped put Jon’s mind at ease even while coronavirus continued to increase. He knew MD Anderson was a safe place to visit. He was even tested for COVID-19 before starting his treatment as a precautionary method, which further reassured him.
During his first visit, Jon met with his oncologist, Milind Javle, M.D. He reviewed Jon’s scans. He determined that while Jon had initially been diagnosed with liver cancer, he actually had a specific type of cancer, bile duct cancer, which is often treated differently.
Jon had come to MD Anderson for the medical expertise its doctors are known for, and while this certainly impressed him, it was the extra caring attitude exhibited by everyone he met that really left a lasting impression. But he never anticipated that a surgeon like Brown would help calm his nerves by singing to him.
Bringing music into the operating room
Brown’s tradition of singing to his patients began a few years ago, but he’s always loved music. Originally a college music and voice major, his advisor suggested he might have a more successful career as a music teacher rather than a performer. That’s when he decided to switch his major to pre-medicine.
Years later, while working as a surgeon at another Texas Medical Center hospital, he started attending and even singing at yearly karaoke events at that hospital. Pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback he received, he started sponsoring karaoke nights at the Rotary House Hotel at MD Anderson. He began singing for his patients while installing their chemotherapy ports, and he noticed how much it helped them.
People are understandably apprehensive about having to have surgery, he says. “It’s very rewarding to help them relax.”
Brown is dedicated solely to installing chemotherapy ports. Each year he sees roughly 900 patients, just once each, to perform the outpatient procedure. Since starting at MD Anderson in 2005, he has installed more than 13,000 ports.
Because he only interacts with most patients once, singing helps him build rapport and make an impact in a short amount of time. He recalls one patient who told him that listening to his singing was the first time she’d been able to forget about cancer since her diagnosis. Now, Brown makes sure to sing at least two or three songs to each patient. Afterward he often emails them some of his recordings, as a little follow-up to let them know he’s thinking of them.
Building a bond with patients through music
With his port installation now complete, Jon felt a bond with the care teams at MD Anderson. He emailed his appreciation to Sutherland, Dr. Brown and the rest of his team. He wrote:
Thank you, Lisa, for your excellent care today. Here’s the verse I added for my new friends at MD Anderson:
I see my health care heroes at MD Anderson,
With smiling faces that say I care for you,
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world!